Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt from developing Next to Normal. The Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning production is making its Los Angeles debut now through January 2 at the Ahmanson Theatre after two successful years on Broadway. Daring in both concept and execution, it doesn't succeed completely but is nonetheless a significant theatrical experience.
Next to Normal journeys into the lives of a contemporary family affected by one member's bipolar disorder, although the affliction seems more like misdiagnosed schizophrenia. Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley, who received the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her New York performance) is initially presented as a typical suburban housewife raising two teenaged children with her husband, Dan (Asa Somers). Symptoms of Diana's previously diagnosed disorder reappear as her behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Not easily managed, her mental health presents numerous challenges to herself and her loved ones.
The plot is largely sung through Kitt and Yorkey's rock-tinged score. Few of the songs are memorable (although the exuberant refrain of "I'm Alive" sticks in one's head) and many of them are over-amplified, but they are good and tell Diana & Family's story in a coherent, organic manner. I found Ripley's vocal stylings odd. At first, I thought her variations in pitch and somewhat slurred words were intentional given Diana's psychiatric imbalance, but I gradually noticed with the help of my actor-singer partner that Ripley juts her lower jaw out when she sings. The result is naturally distorting and unflattering. The psychological and emotional shades of Ripley's performance, however, are exceptional.
I thought the best member of the company is Emma Hunton, who plays Diana's troubled daughter, Natalie. She boasts an excellent singing voice and strong stage performance, and she pulls off the bulk of the show's few but needed humorous moments. Curt Hansen also makes an impression as son Gabe despite being saddled with some excessive, overly-stylized physicality.
Michael Greif, who oversaw the original Broadway productions of Rent and Grey Gardens, directs. Greif's trademark compassion for characters on the margins of society and talent for multi-level staging are evident here. I was very impressed by Mark Wendland's towering set, with partitions that serve variously as rooms of the Goodman's home, performance spaces for the show's split-up band, and the fragmented spaces of Diana's psyche. At times, I couldn't help but be reminded of Hollywood Squares and jokingly thought Paul Lynde might suddenly appear in the "center square," but the design serves the production and cast very well.
As an exploration of mental illness, however, Next to Normal ends up being a mixed bag. Since I work regularly with people suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychiatric issues, I recognized much truth in Diana and her family's plight. All the talents behind the production are to be commended in this regard. But the musical's finale, without giving anything away, can be accused of putting an irresponsibly positive spin on certain decisions Diana makes. Next to Normal is challenging and may even infuriate some, but it is an inarguably unique work.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.