Theater Review of 'Next to Normal' and 'Hair' on Broadway

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

NEW YORK -- Will Broadway have the smarts and taste to anoint "Next to Normal" the best new musical of the year? Unveiled last year at off-Broadway's Second Stage, and polished in December to a smashing finish at Washington's Arena Stage, the show opened last night at the Booth Theatre as a prime example of the power of rock to tell heart-rending stories -- and of the value of reworking a musical until you get it right.

Other musicals of distinction, such as the British-built "Billy Elliot," have arrived on Broadway this year. And one more big, singing vehicle, a stage version of the movie "9 to 5," is slated to open before the Tony Award deadline of April 30. Yet it's not premature to suggest that for originality, ingenuity and sock-it-to-'em emotionality -- not to mention the future of sophisticated American musicals -- "Next to Normal" would be the box to check off on voters' ballots.

In concert with director Michael Greif, composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey have pulled off an astonishing feat, turning a musical that early on suffered from debilitating identity problems into one that now sings in its own consistently ravishing voice. This transformation was evident at Arena, where Kitt and Yorkey did away with some jarringly snarky songs that undermined the sensitive narrative -- that of the struggle with mental illness of a suburban mom, and of the complicated issues that arise for those who love and treat her.

The Arena cast -- several of whom have been in the show since its inception -- makes the transfer to the Booth intact. (The Arena incarnation, which Monday night received three Helen Hayes Awards, establishes an exciting new formula for shows in need of temporary, revivifying shelter.) If anything, the six actors have discovered since Washington even more impassioned texture to the story.

That deepening is embodied most profoundly by Alice Ripley in the pivotal role of the ailing Diana, whose disorder tries the patience of her family and whose obstinacy challenges the arrogant assumptions of the experts. Ripley's performance -- by turns raw and nuanced and caustic and lyrical -- is beautiful in its complexity, as authentic a portrait of a personality divided against itself as you'll encounter in a musical.

And she is in swell company. Jennifer Damiano, playing Diana's angry, hyper-intelligent daughter, Natalie, locates a new depth of adolescent disdain and need, to correspond perfectly to Ripley's evocation of rebelliousness. As Natalie's steadfast boyfriend, Henry, soulful Adam Chanler-Berat even manages to win over the fathers of teenage daughters in the audience.

J. Robert Spencer's heartfelt contributions as Diana's husband, Dan, create a thoroughly sympathetic account of a man bobbing helplessly in the whirlpool of his spouse's troubles. Portraying Diana's shrinks and psychopharmacologists, Louis Hobson ably wears the stoic game face of a helping professional. And so crucially, the extraordinary Aaron Tveit is once again playing the musical's metaphysical fly in the ointment, the golden child who stirs up nothing so much as anguish.

It bears noting here that another musical has made a potent transfer to Broadway of late: the revival of "Hair," which crackled effervescently in Central Park last summer. Director Diane Paulus has skillfully re-imagined her production for the confines of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where the revolutionary spirit of the '60s continues to find buoyant expression.

The participation of two new cast members -- Gavin Creel, as ambivalent hippie Claude, and Caissie Levy, in the role of ardent activist Sheila -- has helped to reassert the savvy subversiveness of the great score by Jerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot.

Even so, that sense of revolutionary mission is just as detectable among the superb crew of actors who strike a blow for the American musical's future each night in "Next to Normal." They bring the cascading emotion of Kitt and Yorkey's rock-infused numbers to wrenching fruition. By the time the show's last song rings out, you might find yourself rhapsodically wrung out.

Next to Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Set, Mark Wendland; costumes, Jeff Mahshie; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronan; musical staging, Serge Trujillo. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.

Hair, book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot. Directed by Diane Paulus. Set, Scott Pask; costumes, Michael McDonald; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Acme Sound Partners; choreography, Karole Armitage. About 2 1/2 hours. At Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.

For both shows, visit or call 212-239-6200.

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