Next to Normal

Today was a normal work day, though I had the opportunity to see a bit more of the Claes Oldenberg show at the Whitney, in particular films of some of his Happenings, and I also wandered the rest of the museum; the only other open floor, featuring selections from the permanent collection, hadn’t changed since I last visited the Whitney in March.  The other floors of the museum are closed for renovation and the installation of the Dan Graham retrospective.

After work I collected some items necessary for cooking: garlic, a few basic spices, crushed red pepper flakes, etc.  Then, I braved my very odd gas stove which makes a clicky noise when you turn it on then awakens with a whoosh of flame.  I have never used this kind of stove, and since I am horridly clumsy I was at first nervous.  Still, I was able to cook for my first time here and made a successful stir fry of udon noodles, peas, and broccoli tossed with some garlic and some eggs I had scrambled.  I call it a winner.

After dinner I headed down to the Theater District to see Next to Normal, which won a few Tonys on Sunday night, most notably Best Lead Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley.  Alice Ripley had been out last night (perhaps she had too much fun at the after parties Sunday night?) but she was in tonight, thank goodness.  Before the show I darted over to Red Mango for some yogurt, nearly mowing down a few tourists in the process, but I was comfortably seated in my seat in the last row of the mezzanine by 7:45.  Luckily the Booth, where Next to Normal plays, is a tiny theater. Also, I ran into one of Jessica’s friends and fellow theatre folk from the University of Florida, who I recognized from a production of West Side Story.  Tiny theater, smaller world.

The show is one of the most earnest, wrenching, emotionally exhausting musicals I have ever seen on Broadway.  The basic plot involves the suburban family of housewife Diana, her husband Dan, and their two children Natalie and Gabe, as they attempt/fail to cope with Diana’s manic depressive disorder, delusions, and anxieties.  The music is fantastic, playing with rock and roll themes but not straying from the basic tenants of musical theatre.  Some songs are extremely full-out, belted, rock-n-roller pieces, particularly notable during a string of five or six such songs during the part of the show where Diana is having a manic period.  Other songs are quiet, subtle, and allow the fabulous cast to showcase nuanced acting and supreme vocal talents.

Next to Normal - Arena Stage

Alice Ripley is so fierce.  She is onstage nearly the entire show and basically singing, acting, and moving full out the entire time.  Her portrayal is honest and strong and very difficult to watch at times, but always brave and beautiful.  The rest of the cast is always excellent, especially the actress who plays the conflicted teenage daughter and the actor who plays the son–a new addition to the cast tonight, as Aaron Tvevit, the previous actor in the role, departed today for another job.  I think that the presence of a new performer in the mix energized the cast, though I am sure they are still riding the high of the Tonys.  The audience was also extremely giving, which never hurts.  I loved the constantly shifting light and sets, also reflective of the shifting emotions and identities of the characters in the show, and the way at one point in the second act the house of the facade alters to reveal a giant pixellated image of Diana’s tormented face.

I was in tears much of the show, mainly due to its spot-on portrayal of bipolar disorder.  While some of the medical details are probably not textbook correct, I found that the depiction of the illness itself: the dissatisfaction with the emotional emptiness left by medication, the desire to relive the high of the manic stage and ceasing the taking of medication to regain that high (captured in a beautiful song called, I believe, “I Miss the Mountains,”) the unavoidable crash and that which follows…those were all painfully true.  I have had, and still have, many friends with bipolar disorder.  They describe their experiences with the illness much as Diana, though the translation of such stories into song–gloriously constructed, reflecting at all moments the complex web of emotions felt by Diana, her family, and those around them–naturally elevates such an experience into a realm of truth only attainable by great art.

Also great art, on a much lighter note, was the extremely tall, extremely skinny boy who I saw waiting for the subway singing along, very very loudly, to Beyonce’s “Diva.”  A great end to a great night.

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