Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing Next to Normal at the Booth Theater in New York. I haven’t written about the show, mostly because I can’t say much without spoiling it for future theater-goers. My friend and I went in knowing very little about the show, and that’s the way to see it.
Here’s what I can tell you: The show is about a woman named Diana struggling with depression and mental illness, and how this affects her family. Her husband just wants things to be normal, loves his wife unconditionally, and is frustrated that she is unable to return to her former self. Her daughter is a perfectionist, eager to get a scholarship to college and flee her family. Her son is, as Diana puts it, “a little shit.” Throughout the show, Diana goes through a variety of treatments; some help, some don’t.
Despite the depressing plot, it’s actually a very funny show. Diana, who knows she is sick, has a sarcastic self-awareness. Likewise, her daughter Natalie has inherited Diana’s quick wit.
It’s also sad, and the most heartbreaking character of all is Diana’s husband, Dan, played to perfection by J. Robert Spencer. There’s been a lot of hoopla about Alice Ripley’s performance. And yeah, she’s very good. I can see why she won the Tony this year. But to me, the real hero in this ensemble is Spencer. I’m not an actor, and I wouldn’t presume to know anything about playing a character struggling with depression. However, it’s one of those roles that garners attention. It’d be easy for the person playing the foil to be cast aside. Spencer does not let this happen. He holds his own against Ripley, and gives one of the best, most convincing performances I’ve ever seen. Watching Dan struggle to keep his family together broke my heart. And, without giving too much away, there is a scene in the second act between Dan and his son, Gabe, that brought me to tears. (See picture above) In fact, I still get teared up listening to it on my iPod.
Those kids were cute on the Tony Awards, and I’m dying to see Billy Elliot, but Spencer was seriously robbed this year. He should have won.
And really, that’s all I can say about the show. Everyone should go see it. It’s heavy, but not in-your-face. It will make you think. It will move you. But, much like Rent (also directed by Michael Greif), it leaves the audience feeling hopeful, and ready to live life to the fullest. (Cliche? Maybe. But it’s true.)
Oh yeah, and the music is incredible. I can’t get the score out of my head.
Here’s a little taste – here is one of my favorite songs from the first act.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go listen to the cast recording for the second time today.