Certainly Not Ordinary People, Definitely Not Normal
A couple of years ago when I was listening to the drek that is High Fidelity, my thoughts prematurely wrote off composer Tom Kitt as a talented writer with no sense of musicality and character. What should have been an excellent rock score for a would-be rock musical came off as amateurish with no direction and no sense for the (bad) book and elementary-grade lyrics (“climb the chart… to your heart” *gag*). Fast forward 3 years and what has emerged from Mr. Kitt is a developed composer of grade-A quality work (and a Tony to show for it) and, more importantly, an entertaining rock score that can finally give my Spring Awakening cast recording a much needed break.
next to normal is a gem of a show. In a season where there were flying ballerina boys, a green ogre, a mash-up of ‘80s power ballads, and a group of annoying kids, next to normal gives us a family who is struggling to stick together in the face of sickness and grief. The show is electrifying and shocking, two things that are sorely missing from this year’s Tony Award winner for Best Musical IMHO.
The music is fantastic for the most part. I will admit, on my first listening, I was not impressed. The songs seemed derivative of a Jason Robert Brown score trying to be Jonathan Larson with a bit of Duncan Sheik thrown in for coolness factor. While I was immediately drawn into the story, I was a bit baffled by the score and its connection to the themes. The songs seemed blatantly unsubtle (“Superboy and the Invisible Girl”) and forced into a rock sound that didn’t seem to fit thematically for me (“Just Another Day”). However after learning of the show’s strong critical reception and reading a trusted blogger’s second opinion of the production, I decided to give the show a second listen. And I’m happy that I did. Now the album is in constant rotation in my car stereo and on my computer. The songs that seemed at first obviously symbolic now just seem simple and pure. The songs that seemed a bit “too rock” for the material, now come off as angry and confused – apt adjectives for a show about mental illness and family angst.
The strongest part of the album is the middle of disc one starting with the revelatory “He’s Not Here.” After showing up to dinner with a birthday cake for her son Gabe (Aaron Tveit), Diana’s (Alice Ripley) husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer) has to painfully let her know that she is suffering from hallucinations. Their son Gabe has been dead for over a decade. **spoiler end** This escalates into the stirring and riveting “You Don’t Know/I Am the One” segment that was performed on the Tony Awards. These two songs are so well written; it must be a joy for actors to be able to play a song as though it were scripted dialogue by Arthur Miller. Kudos to Kitt’s music and Brian Yorkey’s lyrics for capturing not only the intensity of the moment, but the pain and power dynamics of the life these characters live. It’s like the dishwasher scene in Rachel Getting Married or the dog chasing scene in No Country for Old Men in that it captures the essence and tone of the whole show in a brief 5 minutes that resonates strongly.
The fact that daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) is not present in the previous segment is a beautiful choice on behalf of the creators. The next number segues into Natalie’s situation brilliantly. “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” manifests out of an unaccepted apology to Natalie from her mother. Jennifer Damiano soars here and takes her moment and seizes it. Always overshadowed by her brother, Natalie laments over her non-existent relationship with her mom. It’s an important song and all the more poignant for Gabe’s ending taunts.
Then we are given the opportunity to get the perspective of Gabe in “I’m Alive” – a deliciously melodic, almost folksy/Blues Travelers-esque song that bounces with energy and spirit. Aaron Tveit’s sweet tenor sounds fantastic throughout the score, especially here.
What wasn't looked over on my first listen of the show (and what was extremely apparent) was the strong performances of the entire cast, particularly J. Robert Spencer and Alice Ripley. Spencer anchors the show with an incredibly rich emotional core. His voice is superb and emotionally textured. His last song with Aaron Tveit is heartbreaking. Alice Ripley deservedly won her Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical (despite her crazy in-character acceptance speech). next to normal offers her the part of a lifetime. And she takes it by the horns and runs with it. What could have come off as hysterical and manic, her vocal performance is powerful and rich. I’ve never been a big fan of her (at least to me) strained high notes and seemingly forced vibrato, but what was a dislike for me years before is a strong suit for this show and role. She sounds marvelous, actually, and I’ve developed a new respect for her belt.
Bravo to Adam Chanler-Berat for his superb Henry, Natalie’s would-be boyfriend. In the hands of a lesser performer, Henry could have easily been a throw away character; however, Adam’s Henry is ever present throughout the score where the story does not center on him, but couldn’t have existed without his ever-present persona. This is in part due to Kitt and Yorkey’s work, but elevated by Adam’s humorous, strong, and ultimately sympathetic performance.
I do wish there was more dialogue on the disc. The first act is pretty well represented, but when things go a bit crazy (hee hee) in the second half, the story and situations become a bit vague. Some of the songs I just plain don’t like (“I Miss the Mountains”), and the opening number “Just Another Day” still seems jarring and forced for the introduction of the material. Minor complaints about a mostly terrific listen.
I now consider myself an avid supporter of this show. I hope it does well, but feel nonetheless that it will have a life beyond Broadway. I can’t wait for the opportunity to perform the piece in the possible future in community and regional productions. What a treat to be able to sing not only melodic and fun tunes, but richly textured and emotional material.
***1/2 (out of ****)
Next album review - West Side Story revival