Rock musical 'Next to Normal' is anything but
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Diana exists from one delusional episode to the next. Dan holds his emotions in check while barely holding his family together. Their genius daughter Natalie spews obscenities and rebellion and ... it's just another day in the life a family dealing with mental illness.
Makes you want to burst into song, doesn't it?
As spun by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), "Next to Normal" weaves grief, dysfunction, bipolar disorder and psychiatric ethics into a rock musical that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Tonys for best score and orchestration. Mr. Yorkey mines humor and drama and Mr. Kitt's music is dynamic, demanding and often beautiful, no matter the subject matter. "A Light in the Dark," for instance, is a lovely ballad in which a desperate husband tries to persuade his suicidal wife to try electric-shock therapy.
Singer-songwriter Alice Ripley, who won a best-actress Tony as Diana, reprises her role in the "Next to Normal" touring company at the Benedum Center through Sunday. Her distinctive voice and emotional ups and downs galvanize the character, who has been under the long-term care of psychiatrists whose motto seems to be, "it hurts to be healed." They adjust her meds to no avail and, in one memorable scene, a highly recommended "rock-star" therapist (Jeremy Kushnier) rocks her world, if for only a moment.
The inexact science of psychiatry doesn't fare well in "Next to Normal." You probably know the commercials that rush through the scary list of drugs' side effects, but you've never heard them quite like this, as lyrics in a song that asks the question, "Who Is Crazy?" and ponders the relationship between "My Psychopharmacologist and I."
Meanwhile, behind the walls of the Goodman family's suburban home, stalwart husband and father Dan (Asa Somers) hides behind a bland exterior while wondering whether he's the crazy one to still hope for a normal life after 16 years of devotion to a disturbed wife. Emma Hunton's foul-mouthed Natalie has a devoted admirer of her own, sweet stoner Henry (Preston Sadlier), who tries to calm her teenage rage. She has lost patience with her home life and yearns to head to Yale, but can't quite leave her lifelong traumas behind. Ms. Hunton's clear voice is a perfect counter to Ms. Ripley's unmistakable warble. Spirited Curt Hansen plays the Goodman's son Gabe as a menacing, manipulative teen and more than delivers on the catchy rock anthem "I'm Alive."
Mr. Hansen and the rest of the cast bound up and down the steps of Mark Wentland's multilevel set, rarely with everyone on the same floor. There are few places to hide within the open framework that suggests a house and interior walls lined with light bulbs that occasionally flash and throb. Poles and rails provide places to lean on or, for Mr. Hansen, to swing and slide on with abandon.
Dan and Natalie mourn a time when optimism was possible and each new day didn't hold the possibility of another breakdown, while Diana's attempts at normalcy build to another trip to the doctor, another round of pills and treatment.
How did this outwardly ordinary suburban family end up in such a mess? That key plot point comes as a big reveal before the midway point of the first act, and it would be unfair to ruin it here. It's a device that may throw you for a moment, but it thrusts the production into high gear.
So enjoy the anticipation, the music, the clever lyrics, the performances, but don't expect a bouncy, feel-good night at the theater. It's not your normal musical experience and all the better for it.
First Published April 7, 2011 12:00 am