Tuesday, June 7, 2011

PlayhouseSquare: Next to Normal

On one of my trips to New York City last year I saw Next to Normal almost by accident; I chose it more or less by accident. Enjoyed the show, loved the music. But it wasn't until a week or two later that the actual significance of the show really hit me.

When I saw Next to Normal on PlayhouseSquare's 2010-11 season I was excited to have the opportunity to see the show again with that additional clarity -- and I've been looking forward to it all season. With all of my recent and upcoming travel, I've been more than a little afraid that I might miss the relatively quick stop (today through June 19th).

I invited my girlfriend to attend tonight's performance with me but I was intentionally vague about the subject matter. Before the performance we sat down for a quick bite -- she had a Chicken Salad with poppysead dressing, I had a Chicken Cesar with extra dressing -- at Acapella, just steps away from the Palace Theater's doors.

Like the New York playbill, the PlayhouseSquare program provides no synopsis, no schedule of musical numbers, no scene list. Simply the proclamation "There will be one fifteen-minute intermission". When the house lights came up for that intermission, the din in the house was nearly deafening; at the curtain call the standing ovation was nearly unanimous and instantaneous. During the performance, though, the audience was pinned to their seats - I think it was the quietest and most transfixed audience I've seen in a long time.

Next To Normal, with rocking songs ("I'm Alive" is one of my favorites) is a gripping yet entertaining look at mental health -- no, it's a lot more entertaining than it sounds -- and how the mother's (played by Cleveland native Alice Ripley, reprising her Broadway role*) delusions of long-dead son affect the family around her, the imprecise nature of mental health care, and the stresses of suburban, romantic, and educational life in general.

Heavy stuff, right? Had anything been off, book, lyrics, or pacing, it could have easily felt like an academic journal... but with music that moves, witty lyrics, and rapidly perfect pacing it's easy to enjoy. The audience has the choice to attend superficially and be simply entertained, or look more deeply into any of the facets of this fascinating multifaceted musical. Ethical, medical, pharmaceutical, love... there's a little bit of everything to consider.

The set and blocking is (virtually?) identical to the Broadway production placing a large, three-tiered structure with pixelated graphics with the band on the ends of the 2nd and 3rd floors and action regularly taking place on two or more of the levels simultaneously. My date and I were in H319 and 318 which was nearly perfect, though I think there would have been minor vertical sight line issues had we been much closer. Ms. Ripley's voice, that was the only "I can't quite put my finger on it" item that bugged me throughout the evening.

*- Though an understudy was in the role the evening I saw the production in New York.

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