Next to Normal, LA

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Left to right: Curt Hansen, Alice Ripley and Asa Somers in “Next to Normal”
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Next to Normal

Music by Tom Kitt
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greif
Starring Alice Ripley and Asa Somers
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Through Jan. 2, 2011

“Next to Normal” inhabits space that is more likely to be found in a serious theater than on the musical stage. As the lights go up we see Diana (Tony-winning Alice Ripley), a bright, attractive housewife in the throes of yet another episode of bipolar illness. Although in danger of becoming the diagnosis du jour, full-blown bipolar illness is an unstoppable force; it is not for the faint of heart. The eruptions are like hurricanes sweeping periodically over more tranquil lands. There are measures that can be taken to mitigate the damage, but it is unlike pneumonia: barring complications, a course of penicillin will most likely make the pneumonia go away. A rock musical seems even more unlikely a vehicle to convey the story. While there is nothing memorable about Tom Kitt’s music—you will probably not be humming any tunes the next morning—and not everyone is likely to appreciate its unrelenting force, the underlying (and much too loud) rock tempest nevertheless does fit the tempest within.

Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics for “Next to Normal,” clearly has a real appreciation for many facets of the disease. He gets the personal devastation as well as the casualties left in the wake of the storms. It becomes a tragedy for the whole family. He also captures the initial energy, humor, and sexuality that are present as a manic begins to escalate, and the crash when it mounts and becomes mixed with the depression. Diana’s family, daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton), and husband Dan (Asa Somers), are sensitive to the signals—although the sex for Dan can make him want to forget for a moment. Life in their family has pretty much centered on Diana. Natalie’s urgency to get out of her house far exceeds a normal 16-year-old’s growing pains. Both father and daughter, watching Diana’s frenetic pace, realize the resistant Diana needs medication; they need to get her to a doctor and get her there fast.

Ripley’s Diana is entirely credible, although her strained vocalizations through the mostly sung dialogue make her hard to understand at times. A more straightforward musical approach would serve her better. But be that as it may, when she sings “I Miss the Mountains,” and dumps her medications, she channels the pain of many a patient. The initial high of a manic episode has been described as more powerful than cocaine. Few willingly give it up.

(Note: The following paragraph reveals plot details.) Diana is so self-involved, she treats her daughter as though she is not there. One child is palpably there, however; it is her son Gabe, who has captured her attention and devotion. The problem is, Gabe is a delusion. He is perfect as only a delusion can be. The real Gabe died when he was a baby. It is “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” that Natalie sings, and we get it. We see the handsome Gabe (Curt Hansen) as Diana does. He is a force for ill. The delusion offers unconditional love and he goads her into plunging more deeply into the abyss.

Meanwhile, husband Dan has been trying to hold Diana, and his family, together for 19 years. He is devoted, exhausted, and vacillating between hope for the miracle cure and questioning, “Am I crazy? Why am I still here? Like Ripley, the character Dan is a reprise for Asa Somers; he played the husband on Broadway and the two leads have a comfortable way with one another. That is to say Somers does miserable and supportive, and Ripley does miserable and rejecting, very convincingly.

Act I is tight and captures the devastation of a major mental illness with skill and wit. From Act I it is clear why “Next to Normal” won the Pulitzer in 2010. Act II, however, is in search of a tidy ending. Tidy endings rarely happen with this much pathology, so the play loses much of its force. Whether you can fully appreciate the pain experienced by everyone around such a person if you have never seen bipolar illness I do not know. If you have been witness to the devastation, you will see how close “Next to Normal” comes to the truth for both patient and ones close to her.

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