Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: Next to Normal

This Musical is Anything but Normal. It's a Standout
By Lauren Yarger
From the first jolting chord of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal playing at the Booth Theatre, it’s obvious that this musical is anything but normal. It quickly defines itself as a standout on the Great White Way, with a marvelous cast, a terrific score, insightful lyrics and an unlikely, but wonderfully engaging story about a family dealing with depression and bi-polar disorder.

Mark Wendlend’s imposing three-story set provides a framework for the family’s residence and other locations while housing the band on two of the levels. The framework for a happy home might be there, and the family tries to be “normal”, but the foundation shifts on quicksand as Diana (Alice Ripley) battles depression. The opening number entitled “It’s Just Another Day” has double meaning as we see Diana shift from “normal” mom packing the family’s lunches to what’s really “normal” for her: a mom coping with mental illness.

She tries to go through the motions, but her husband, Dan (J. Robert Spencer), whom she finds boring, tunes out the wife he doesn’t understand. Daughter Natalie (a fantastic Jennifer Damiano) copes by tuning out socially and focusing on good grades and getting into Yale. Soon the question becomes who is crazier: the person who can’t hope or the one who keeps hoping?

There’s a terrifically funny song in which Diana fantasizes about her psychiatrist as a rock star (Louis Hobson) as he discusses possibilities for medications. Her diagnosis of “bipolar disorder” doesn’t seem to cover it. Diana goes on and constantly adjusts medications, but there are side effects and she misses the “highs and lows” she trades for feeling “nothing at all.” The lethargy renders her incapable of helping Natalie when she begins a new relationship with friend Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat) and experiments with drugs, so she goes off the meds.

Michael Greif expertly directs, using space between the characters to enhance emotions. Lighting designer Kevin Adam’s individual light bulbs and contrasting hues create the feeling of being inside a brain as he makes the emotions palpable.

As Diana succumbs to a desire to be free, the family must cope with her suicide attempt and the electric shock therapy that follows. The scenes where Dan cleans up the blood and when he reaches out to her in the song “A Light in the Dark” are gripping. Can the family survive? The well-developed characters (Ripley's portrayal is deep and honest) in this well-written story make you hope so.

It’s compelling stuff, told mostly through the songs (Yorkey, responsible for the witty, clever and tightly penned lyrics also wrote the book) which are unusual, catchy and give both Ripley and Damiano a chance to put their Broadway belts to good use. Aaron Tveit also gives great vocals to Diana’s son Gabe.

The musical wasn't eligible for Outer Critics Circle or Drama Desk awards this season because of its previous off-Broadway run. It is up for a Tony, however, and it might just give Billy Elliot a little competition.

Next to Normal Plays at the Booth Theatre, 222 w. 45th St., NYC. For tickets call (212) 239-6200/ (800) 432-7250. For special group rates, click here.

Christians might also like to know:
• Drug use depicted
• Language
• Suicide (act not show; blood after seen)
• Sex outside of marriage

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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