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Theater review: 'Next to Normal' at the Ahmanson Theatre

November 29, 2010 |  2:18 pm

Next to normal 1a 

Uh-oh. Diana seems to be having another one of her episodes. She’s staying up all night disinfecting the house, sneaking into bed for some manic lovemaking and then arising without a wink of sleep to start an assembly line of unnecessary sandwiches. Time once again to speed-dial her doctor about her meds.

Alice2The pervasive effect of mental illness on a family is harrowingly brought to life in “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which opened Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre with a daring somber relentlessness. The production arrives with its two greatest assets intact — Michael Greif’s boldly inventive physical staging and Alice Ripley’s raw Tony-winning portrayal of a wife and mother falling apart for the umpteenth time.

A rare recent example of Broadway integrity, the show found an audience not by sugarcoating its depiction of bipolar disorder but by finding provocative ways of representing its seismic emotional fallout onstage. The subject matter may be unusually grim, but the artistry and ambition are uplifting, even when the work loses focus in the second act. And like all good musicals, it breaks your heart without crushing your hope. 

“Next to Normal” is part of a new line of rock-infused musicals confronting issues normally reserved for serious drama. “Rent” (also originally directed by Greif) started this contemporary trend by showing that an electric-guitar-driven blockbuster could be made about AIDS and addiction. “Spring Awakening” subsequently sang moodily about sexual repression and teen suicide. “Passing Strange,” while no box office dynamo, turned out indie grooves on race and artistic identity. And “American Idiot,” the often mesmerizing Green Day collage, ventured into the realm of 21st century slacker ennui and further introduced new possibilities to old Broadway.  

Next to normal 1The scores for these shows aren’t bursting with piano bar show tunes, and traditional tastes might not be seduced. But the willingness to move the American musical away from the mindlessness wrought by escalating commercial pressures is something to cheer about. Not all will love “Next to Normal” (the show, in fact, is oddly polarizing), but it deserves full respect for what it sets out to accomplish.

Admittedly, the way in which Yorkey’s book and lyrics conflate clinical and symbolic realms isn’t always persuasive. And Kitt’s nearly constant flow of music, while more compelling on repeated exposures, sometimes takes the mind-shattering cacophony a bit too far. You may begin to feel yourself nervously quivering as the onstage band, perched on upper tiers of Mark Wendland’s set of metallic scaffolding, drives Diana’s mental frenzy into your own brain. Kevin Adams’ lighting, crossing Broadway glitz with expressionistic psychodrama, intensifies the sense that all of our sanity — not just Diana’s — is hanging by a single thread.

The plot isn’t easy to discuss without giving away a crucial twist. Let’s just say that the musical tracks Diana’s situation from a variety of vantages. This normal looking woman — the very image of an attractive mother on a TV drama — descends into a state of madness that resists the usual drug and psychotherapy protocols. Electroconvulsive therapy is recommended. Diana’s husband, Dan (Asa Somers), her daughter, Natalie (Emma Hunton), and her son, Gabe (Curt Hansen), are instantly plunged into a state of crisis. Like it or not — and Natalie is understandably sick and tired of an ordeal that has swallowed most of her existence — patient and caretakers are helplessly enmeshed.
  
Ripley’s face is like a translucent membrane covering unspeakable suffering. She’s tired of muffling her emotions with pills, as she explains in the number “I Miss the Mountains.” Yet flushing her prescription medicines down the toilet is a risky proposition. Every action or inaction poses treacherous consequences. No wonder everyone around her is completely strung out, including Natalie’s quirky new boyfriend, Henry (Preston Sadleir), who refuses to give up on his clever classmate even though she’s flirting with giving up on herself.
 
Jeremy Kushnier plays Diana’s doctors, whose answers are backed with little certainty. Even the medical establishment is groping, to a degree, in the dark. This realization leads Diana to a terrifying question: “What happens if the cut, the burn, the break / Was never in my brain or in my blood / But in my soul?”

The creators’ respect for the mystery of mental illness is brave. But that only makes it more difficult for them to figure out a resolution to their story, which defies easy fixes. Their solution is moving yet dramatically clumsy, and the equation that’s established between the triggering factor of Diana’s manic-depression and the prospect for her recovery is increasingly strained. 

The production dominates the performers more than it did in New York. Some intimacy is lost at the Ahmanson and the blare of the staging, presumably pumped up to fill the theater’s acoustical dead space, had me reaching into my medicine cabinet when I returned home.

Somers, in particular, gets lost in the shuffle; his Dan has a milky quality that’s never really clarified. Hunton creates a distinctive impression as Natalie, a bright young woman who’s as petulant as she is injured. But the actors are still finding their individual footing in this first stop on the show’s national tour. The character relationships are well drawn but right now they’re only briskly inhabited.

Still, “Next to Normal” is worth catching, and not just for those fretting about the musical’s future. At the center of the production is a truly gutsy tour de force performance. Diana swings dangerously high and low, and Ripley soars while tracing these heartrending arcs. 

-- Charles McNulty 
 twitter.com/charlesmcnulty

"Next to Normal," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles Music Center. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Jan. 2. $20 to $95. (213) 628-2772  or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including one intermission.

 Photos: Top: Alice Ripley, center, with Curt Hansen, left, and Asa Somers. Middle: Ripley and Jeremy Kushnier. Bottom: Ripley and Kushnier. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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