Rachel Bay Jones Was Born to Star in Next To Normal
The Tony winner leads a revival of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Pulitzer-winning musical at the Kennedy Center.
It seemed a foregone conclusion, for anyone who had seen Dear Evan Hansen, that one day Rachel Bay Jones would graduate to Next To Normal. Beyond the obvious similarities in the shows (both are rock musicals about mental illness and grief, and both are directed by Michael Greif), it just made sense to think that the warm, offbeat Jones, who won a Tony for her devastating portrayal of a beleaguered suburban mom in the former, would be a natural choice to play a beleaguered suburban mom in the latter. At the Kennedy Center, where Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Pulitzer-winning musical was revived for the weekend as part of the Broadway Center Stage series, Jones proved why the suspicion was true. She's incredible.
Jones plays Diana Goodman, a suburban mom suffering from bipolar disorder and hallucinations stemming from a trauma decades earlier. As her resolute husband Dan (Brandon Victor Dixon) shepherds her from doctor to doctor (Michael Park), from pill regimen to electroconvulsive therapy, Diana struggles to remain connected to her past and present while their teenage children (Maia Reficco as daughter Natalie and Khamary Rose as son Gabe) contend with a family on the brink of disaster.
For the Kennedy Center run, Greif has re-created his original Broadway production with so few modifications that it's hard to spot the differences (the only major changes for 2020 are the more diverse company and the removal of the looming pair of eyes that accentuated the top of Mark Wendland's multilevel scaffolding set, here adapted by Paul Tate dePoo III). Greif obviously knows Next To Normal inside and out, and the ensuing decade has only added to the depth and anguish of his staging. Have tissues handy.
Moreover, he has guided this new company to fresh yet lived-in performances with only a week or two of rehearsal. Reficco and Rose have limited stage experience, but they're both so interesting to watch. Though she could afford to slow down the dialogue a little, Reficco is beautifully vulnerable as a daughter so frequently pushed aside that she's basically invisible (her relationship with boyfriend Henry, played by charming Dear Evan Hansen vet Ben Levi Ross, is a sweet counterpoint to the fraught nature of her parents' marriage). Rose, meanwhile, is magnetic as "perfect" son Gabe, even if he lacks the menace that the role really needs to land. Park brings authority and surprising cordiality to the roles of two doctors with vastly different visions for Diana's treatment.
All of us would be happy to listen to Brandon Victor Dixon's voice on a loop, and he does not disappoint here, especially in the wrenching first-act finale, "A Light in the Dark." If it seems like he doesn't have that much chemistry with Jones, perhaps it's strategic — Dan and Diana's marriage has been rocky for quite a while. But he really delivers a broken husband's psychological efforts to help his wife while trying to will everything back to his supposed vision of normality.
As for Jones, she's just luminous. She sings the hell out of it (the naked rawness of her voice adds a particularly overwhelming power to the first act's "You Don't Know / I Am the One") and puts a human, everyday face on a struggle that, even more than a decade since the show's premiere, still isn't talked about in public conversation.
Because of that, Next To Normal feels like a particularly timely story to tell in our current climate, and it would be a real shame if this gem of a production — and its tremendous leading lady — disappears like a flash of lightning after only eight performances.