Monday, April 20, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Four "The Singing Forest" and "Next to Normal"

The Singing Forest
Save yourself. It's too late for me, but you still have time to avoid this stinker at the Public.

As we are told several times during this three-act, two-intermission debacle, "there are no coincidences." Thing is, there are coincidences...'s just that most of them aren't worth talking about. And even though the coincidences are cresting well above flood level here, there's still no reason to focus on them. Act two is exceptionally awful, with some of the worst farcical, physical comedy I've seen in New York.

I've liked other Craig Lucas shows (especially my first, "Reckless" at Berkeley Rep), but this one should quietly fade away.

"Next to Normal"
When art works, it works because it has layers of appeal. "Hamlet" isn't just a story about revenge, or an indecisive prince. It's also about the beauty of language and the ephemeral nature of consciousness and the bonds we share with others...and a thousand other things. Jasper Johns' paintings aren't great just because they show us ordinary things in new ways, they're great because they cause a reaction within us, and because they force us to examine our world in ways we might not have if we hadn't seen his work. And because they are amazing technical creations.

Although "Next to Normal," the new musical that just opened at the Booth Theater is ostensibly about how a family copes with a mother who suffers from bipolar disorder with delusions, it's also about the condition of being human. It's about how we connect -- or not -- with our fellow beings. It's about what we give up in order to grow, and how we grow up by giving. It's about the fragility of love, the tenacity of biology, the frustration of not getting what you want -- and the perils inherent in getting it.

"Next to Normal" took hold of me from the moment I walked into the theater and saw Mark Wendland's amazing tri-level set and never really let go. I was drawn into the story of Diana (Alice Ripley), a wife and mother struggling to balance the meds that keep her on anything close to an even keel. Her husband, Dan (J. Robert Spencer) does what he can, but the strain is showing. Their daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) has compensated for her mother's madness by excelling at school and music -- until the stress of mom's relapse (due to failing meds) finally send her off the adolescent deep end, as well.

But the real troublemaking teen is brother Gabe, who haunts and torments mom in ways the rest of the family can't truly comprehend. (Though you will, about mid-way through the first act.)

"Next to Normal" put me in mind of one of my favorite works of art, Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective." Like that brilliant little mini-series, "N2N" is partly about the thin line between madness and sanity, fantasy and reality, selfless love and love of self. Things that seem to be there but aren't really -- or are they?

The music by Tom Kitt, combined with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, deliver a powerful punch of jangling sweetness and tough-minded emotion. Nothing is really hummable in the standard musical sense, but that's not really what "Next to Normal" is about.

In fact, what may be most brilliant about this show may be that it's about whatever is most important to you right now. And isn't that what makes art, art?

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