Monday, 15 February 2010

New York: 'Next To Normal' at the Booth Theatre

Any trip to New York includes several trips to the theatre, more often than not on Broadway. This visit was no different with five shows pre-booked by Chris.

The first show was 'Next To Normal', a show that had a big build-up, the new hit pop-rock musical that has won lots of awards, the radical and original 'bi-polar musical' doing something new with the genre. I ought to point out up front that the leading lady was off the night we went so that might have affected the performance and my view of it but, on the other hand, I can only go by what I see. I entered the theatre hopeful and left it puzzled. What did the rest of the audience see and hear that passed me by?

It's the tale of a middling family set anywhere in America but the mother is having problems, a long-term depression that affects her behaviour. She is the centre of the piece, her experience as a mother, the medication, electric shock treatment, the lot. Yes, it's a fun story. It has a pop-rock score with some muscular guitar moments that give it balls, the staging is on three levels with the middle level at eye level with the balcony where we were sitting in the front row. At the start of the play I believed there were two children in the family but later realised that the son had actually died as an infant and was the reason for the mother's depression - she saw and heard him, but he was dead. That's the only thing in the play that surprised me - I didn't realise he was dead.

I wanted to like this musical, really, I did. But it started going wrong for me at the start when the actress playing the mother started doing odd things with her legs, stretching them out to emphasise the calf. Was she doing this because the proper leading lady did it? It's the kind of thing that would look good in an action photo but just looks naff when it's done in front of you.

And then there was the daughter, the poor little teenager that nobody understood or loved, all 'me me me' and you just know that under her shirt she's all tensed up with the effort of singing (usually looking at the floor or in somebody's face). What was worse was that she sang in that faux Alanis Morissette way of shortening the final vowel in the final word on the line, sounding like 'doctirrrrr' rather than 'doctor' (if you know what I mean). So many American singers seem to do that these days - what was original in Alanis is just annoying in others. And she compounded my misery by saying 'fuck' every 20 words or so - or so it seemed. That was clearly meant to be shocking but why not just throw in a 'cunt' now and then and leave the 'fucks' alone?

I'm afraid those two things alone lost me. The sheer pretension of it, the 'me'-ness of it, meant I had no emotional attachment to it at all. The daughter whinging on about herself when her mother is quite plainly ill and doesn't lift a finger to help was awful. If that was set in this country then I suspect most people would want to give her a slap and tell her to act her age. And perhaps that's the real reason it didn't resonate with me - that slight gap called the Atlantic Ocean. It was just too American for me.

The costumes were a bit naff, with the final scene making them look like they were in a Gap advert (maybe they were?). The characters were a bit stereotyped, the dad was nondescript in the extreme and the only one I liked was Henry, the daughter's nerdy boyfriend who was clearly in there for light relief but he worked for me. The set was pole-dance heaven with a scaffolding theme going on for the cast to swing round on a regular basis.

I'm not giving it a good review, am I? Maybe I should stop there...

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