In 2020, isn’t all of DC just trying to get by with something “next” to normal? We’re going about our daily lives while there’s an impeachment trial going on. A foreign leader was recently assassinated. And the World Health Organization just called the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency. Things are decidedly not normal. And yet, we have to go about our days going to work, dropping the kids off at school, and paying our mortgage. Next to normal, I guess.
Maybe when looking at entertainment options, our first choice isn’t to go on an emotional journey with a family impacted by bipolar disorder. At the same time, maybe we need a good cry in the dark at the Eisenhower. It’s kind of cathartic, kind of masochistic.
Ten years have passed since we last encountered the Goodman family on stage at the Booth Theater in New York. No doubt, many of the Kennedy Center patrons caught the pre-Broadway tryout at Arena Stage or took Amtrak up to New York to see it on the Great White Way. And now we meet the Goodmans again in a different world than when we met them in 2009. A decade has gone by. We’ve got Trump instead of Obama, Instagram instead of chatrooms, and a roaring economy instead of a Great Recession. Mental illness has leaped forward toward destigmatization but we also have the opioid epidemic.
While attitudes toward mental illness have changed in the past eleven years, this musical about a mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder holds up and doesn’t feel like too much of an out of touch time capsule. Rachel Bay Jones and Brandon Victor Dixon give incredible performances as Diana and Dan, the wife struggling with mental illness and the husband struggling to support her. The Jeffrey Finn produced Broadway Center Stage “semi-staged” concert version is on fire. (Spoiler: nothing about this production feels semi-anything.) The staging, set, lighting, and band are all firing on four cylinders.
This production reunites the original Next to Normal creative team members director Michael Greif, musical director Charlie Alterman, and costume designer Jeff Mahshie. Adapted scenic design is by Paul Tate dePoo III, lighting by Cory Pattak, and sound design by Kai Harada.
For those who caught the original production at Arena Stage in 2008 or on Broadway in 2009, you will recognize the tic-tac-toe industrial stage design. The projection-free (what a relief) levels serve the story in a powerful way giving the audience a unique vantage point into multiple characters’ journeys at once. All the creative elements serve the story and propel it forward at a nice clip.
Rachel Bay Jones is giving the performance of a lifetime in the role that won Alice Ripley the Tony. Hearing the full-voiced Jones as Diana is delicious. While I hate that the vast majority of theatergoers won’t see Jones disappear into Diana, the benefit to us at the Eisenhower is that it’s clear she hasn’t been screlting this score for twelve months. She is giving us full-out-no-marking rock singing without any hint of a vocal nodule.
Jones’ performance is charming, funny, deft, and heartbreaking. She oozes charisma bringing a grounded confidence to the flighty Diana. She is warm and charming and just plain likable. The fact that you want to grab a beer with this Diana makes her descent even more wrenching.
And Brandon. Victor. Dixon. He’s currently best known for his work opposite John Legend in the televised Jesus Christ Superstar and for Fox’s (sadly pre-recorded due to an actor’s eleventh-hour injury) Rent. He’s usually tapped for roles where he plays cool, calculating, or a pillar of strength. Dixon’s take on Dan works beautifully. He is a delightful study in opposites to Jones’ Diana. He’s optimistic, grounded. He rolls with the punches. But the wear and tear of cleaning up after Diana and trying to reach her for seventeen years have clearly taken an emotional toll. Dixon’s cool strength shines when his character breaks the fourth wall, sharing his internal vulnerabilities with the audience. And these songs sit perfectly in Dixon’s velvety voice. “He’s Not Here” is heartbreaking perfection.
When watching Maia Reficco, Khamary Rose, and Ben Levi Ross, you can’t help but envision their starry and successful futures and wonder who it is you’re seeing before the world recognizes their great talent. All three have bright futures on stage. It feels almost like seeing Han, Luke, and Leia, before the opening night of “Star Wars.” (Although with a million Instagram followers, one could argue that Reficco already is a superstar.) Michael Park does fine work as Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine.
While the world outside the four walls of the theater will likely never feel “normal,” seeing a play like this one is a reminder that the feeling of wanting something “next to normal” is rather universal. And that is the beauty of sitting in the dark, sniffing and wiping a tear, next to a thousand other people feeling the same thing.