Review: Next to Normal is part-musical, part-drama

Ordinary people
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 23, 2011

HAUNTED Alice Ripley as Diana.
Musicals have been made about everything from finicky felines to a wheel-chaired victim pushed overboard by terrorists. So Next to Normal's focus on bipolar disorder is hardly an eyebrow-raiser these days. An impressive touring production is at the Providence Performing Arts Center through March 27.

The topic is not surprising but is potentially off-putting, notwithstanding that playwrights have been mining the inky depths of the human psyche for centuries. Maladies, however, don't exactly have the allure of a kick line singing "42nd Street," or even of Hamlet.

In Next to Normal, a vividly imagined ghost also haunts the narrative, and a slow-motion psychological exorcism threatens to tear a family apart. The story, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, is intensified by dressing the absorbing drama in musical clothing, and every major character is pushed to their limit with soap opera relentlessness.

Such a span of intense relationships. Diana (Alice Ripley), the central character, is bursting with motherly imperative, but not toward her daughter, who badly needs her attention. Her husband Dan (Asa Somers) is on the edge of tumbling down his own rabbit hole of depression as he tries to keep his family together. Teenaged daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton) has a reluctant romance with Henry (Preston Sadleir), a boy at school, whose loyalty resembles her father's toward her mother.

But no one is having as hard a time as disoriented Diana, who for 16 years has been hallucinating the presence of her dead son Gabriel (Curt Hansen), who died before Natalie was born. Diana has bipolar disorder. She remains brightly cheerful to her family when she can but worries them with such behavior as making a long line of sandwiches for them on the floor. "Guess I got carried away," she explains.

Dark humor pervades the proceedings. Diana relies on her psychopharmacologist, and a litany of drugs in one song ends with a Sound of Music reprise: "Ativan calms me when I see the bills/These are a few of my favorite pills." The number finishes with her declaring, "I don't feel anything," and her doctor concluding for his notes: "Patient stable."

Humor is helpful in such a show if audiences aren't to leave suicidal. There are many light touches, usually from Diana, which help us identify and sympathize with her. When her husband takes her to another doctor (Michael McElroy), saying that the man is "a rock star," she keeps seeing him in that way when he speaks, in a flash of dramatic lighting, striking a power chord pose.

Forty songs tell the story. Music magnifies emotions, helpful amplification in such numbers as "I Miss the Mountains," when Diana remembers her high points of feelings before they were dulled by medication, and in Gabe's powerful "I'm Alive" ("I feed on the fear that's behind your eyes/And I need you to need me, it's no surprise").

All the singing voices are pleasant, but the most unusual one is Ripley's. Appropriate for such a haunted character as Diana, her songs frequently take on a tremulous, poignant quaver that make them all the more moving. Ripley created the role on Broadway, for which she earned a 2009 Tony.

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