Next to Normal

Just when you think you might have THE most dysfunctional family in the whole world, you go see Next to Normal and you realize that you’re just that — really, really normal.

I became aware of this Broadway musical during the 2009 Tony Awards. The show was nominated for 11 awards and won three: best original score, best orchestration, and best actress for a leading actress in a musical (Alice Ripley). It also received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama — just the eighth musical ever to win that coveted prize. (The previous one was RENT, not coincidentally directed by the same man, Michael Greif.)

We bought tickets to see the show in New York last May. But first, I bought the cast recording and immediately fell in love with it. It’s one of those shows that just sucks you in from beginning to end, and even without seeing the characters, I loved them all. So when I saw the show on Broadway (from the third row center, thank you very much) I was absolutely mesmerized.

Then last year the Civic Center in Des Moines announced that Next to Normal would be part of its broadway series, and we quickly snapped up tickets for our whole (only semi-dysfunctional) family.

We went to the show today. I am still on a bit of a Broadway high as I write this. A high, and also a low, because this musical is raw and emotional. It tells the story of a family in which the mother is bipolar, delusional, and suppressing a tragic event from her past. The mother, Diana, is played in the current Broadway touring production by Alice Ripley, the Tony Award-winning lead actress. We saw her in New York, too, and from my third-row seat I was blown away by her powerful performance.

The rest of the family is in nearly as much pain as Diana: her long-suffering husband, Dan, and her overachieving teenage daughter, Natalie. The actor and actress cast in these roles are superb. Three other actors round out the small but mighty cast.

Despite the devastating grief and intense sadness of this show, it still somehow manages to find humor in some of the very real-life situations. The music has a powerful rock score, and the lyrics help to draw the audience along in the storyline — as opposed to being merely entertaining.

If I could afford it, I would have gone to see every performance of this show during its Des Moines run (which ends tomorrow) — that’s how good it is. Would that be obsessive? Not to worry — I’m pretty sure there’s a pill for that.

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