There's an ol' musical theater maxim that if a show has three song 'n' dance show-stoppers in it, it will be a hit.
Next to Normal has none at all, not in the sense of "Who's That Woman" from Follies or "We'll Take a Glass Together" from Grand Hotel. Such a show-stopper would be out of place for this one-set, six-character show set mostly in a suburban home. But Next to Normal is a hit nevertheless, for it offers two things in place of those three show-stoppers.
Gasps from the audience.
One in each act.
Each gasp shows that the crowd at the Booth has connected to and has come to care about the characters that lyricist-librettist Brian Yorkey created. Director Michael (Rent) Greif has staged these moments to maximum advantage, too.
Both gasps involve Diana Goodman, who's been married to Dan for decades. Marriage almost always takes its toll, but troubles grow exponentially once a child is born. Diana and Dan have had two, first Gabe, and then some years later, Natalie.
Natalie turned out adequately - until recently. Now, though, the teen is dating Henry, a young man who's no stranger to drugs. About Gabe, the less said, the better - except to say that he's causing Diana to have severe mental problems.
When the audience discovers what she thinks about him, it responds with Gasp Number One. When it later learns what happens after her family and doctors try to help results in Gasp Number Two. (To say much more would, of course, take away these gasps for those yet to see the show.)
Many wives who attend Next to Normal will wish that their husbands could love them as much as Dan loves Diana. For 140 minutes, Dan is truly devoted no matter how much Diana might disappoint him. J. Robert Spencer beautifully conveys that commitment.
Alice Ripley is wondrous as Diana, showing the anguish of a fate worse than death. Jennifer Damiano is appealing as Natalie, who goes from being badly influenced by Henry to becoming a bad influence on him. Adam Chanler-Berat does well in showing the lad's ever-growing distress. Meanwhile, the ever-so-appealing Aaron Tveit almost steals the show as Gabe, though his role is tailor-made for such a theft.
Tom Kitt's music is perfectly acceptable, through-sung pop rock that fits these contemporary characters. Yet there is a sense of sameness about it when characters sing where, in musicals of yore, they used to speak. True, the audience gives a song or two the occasional de rigueur "Whoo!" But no reaction makes an impression as strong as those gasps.