Posted: August 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

The modern American musical has undergone vast changes in the last few decades. The light and fluffy, ‘white picket fence’ “big shows” of the 50s and 60s, like “Oklahoma!”, “Hello Dolly!” and “Guys ‘n Dolls,” gave way to a more gritty and politically charged musical in the late 60s and 70s with shows like “Hair” and “Cabaret”. And then of course, the 80s showered us with the elaborate, multi-million dollar, multi-national visual spectacles by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, while the 90s ushered in the “Disneyfication” of Broadway with shows like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”

What all of these decades had in common (with a few notable exceptions such as “Hair”) is that they tended to be over-the-top, feel good pieces of pure escapism, where audiences would applaud monstrous sets and bedazzling stagecraft, lose themselves in emotionally manipulative plots, all while tapping their feet to the generally upbeat rhythms and tempos of music that was purposefully made to be as easily consumed as a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

And this was America! A happy, little place where wealthy suburbanites living in the McMansions of gated neighborhoods would make a foray into the big city for a night of theatre magic, a theatre where they could forget the stresses of their accumulating debts and expanding waistlines, and lose themselves in a fictional world where the boy always gets his girl, where the good guy always wins, and where everything gets tied up nice and neatly in the end.

But then something happened …

Perhaps it all started with “Rent” or maybe it was “Avenue Q”; perhaps it was due to the tragedy of 9/11, the corruption of the Bush years, fallout of the economic crisis, but whatever the reason, musicals changed; their subject matter became a little more mundane, a little more ‘streetwise,’ a little more reflective of an unsettling social reality, one that is characterized by economic disparity, unfulfilled dreams, broken lives, a war worn populace, and unhappy, unresolved endings.

This is the dystopian stage on which the new, contemporary American musical is played in productions like “American Idiot”, “Spring Awakening”, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and I would add to the list, “Next to Normal,” the new production by the Balagan theater company now playing at the Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill.

Directed by Brandon Ivie with musical direction by R.J. Tancioco, this 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning musical follows the struggle of a modern, American family as they deal with the issue of mental illness. All of the show’s dialogue is sung to the sound of pop-rock music as the story unfolds on a relatively sparse set (designed by Robert J. Aguilar and Pete Rush), consisting primarily of the family’s home, the psychiatrist’s office, and the hospital.

“Next to Normal” is a rather peculiar musical all the same. It definitely touches on some of the complexities of dealing with mental illness, from the struggles concerning medication side effects and patient compliance, to the confusion of identity and loss of memory that inevitably ensues. And although the show tries to explore these issues with sensitivity and depth, the premise on which it does so is somewhat superficial. In other words, there was an awful lot of rationalism behind the impetus of the protagonist’s mental illness, and it was based on events that were very far fetched in terms of leading to the extremities that it did. In short, “Next to Normal” comes across as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, Part 2: The Musical” written by R. Kelly.

This said, the company has done a fine job of mounting this strange little musical, which features Beth DeVries, Auston James, Keaton Whittaker, Kody Bringman, Ryan Hotes, and Ryan McCabe. Their voices aren’t necessarily the most polished and beautiful, but they are certainly capable of hitting the notes and keeping the show moving at a good pace. And all in all, they make a good ensemble.

I just can’t help from wondering, however, if musicals like this, where the first act ends in a suicide attempt and electro-convulsive therapy, are indicative of the end of the great American empire, especially when compared to the ‘grandes histoires’ of musicals of yesteryear …

“Next to Normal” plays through March 2nd at the Erickson Theatre off Broadway. For tickets, visit: BalaganTheatre.org178

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