Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer, Aaron Tveit, Jennifer Damiano, Adam Chanler-Berat, Louis Hobson
Next to Normal is about as engaging, thrilling and surprising as it’s possible for a musical focused on mental illness to be.
Beginning life as Feeling Electric in 2005, it was staged last year off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre, where it received multiple nominations for both the cast and creative teams.
Four of the original cast are still with the show, while one them – Brian DArcy James – has gone green for Shrek The Musical; but, despite the absence of James, the cast remains strong, tight and united.
The musical, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is about a woman, Diana, who is suffering from psychotic episodes. She is severely bipolar, she hallucinates, and her family – her husband, son and daughter – is slowly being pulled apart as a result.
Alice Ripley, reprising her Drama Desk-nominated performance, plays Diana with an exuberant sense of wonder. She is constantly surprised by the world around her. Ripleys Diana is a woman struggling to be a good wife and mother. Though the barriers between reality and fantasy are slipping away, she attempts to hold it together for her family as best she can.
Aaron Tveit has a riveting presence as Gabe, Dianas son. He stalks and struts around the multi-level set, demanding attention, whether silent or in full-throated song. His voice is beautiful and aching.
Jennifer Damiano, plays the well-adjusted daughter, Natalie, almost lost, submerged in the drama of her family. Her frustration is easy to understand and painful to watch. Her emotion and embarrassment is so organic that it pulls in an audience that might otherwise feel alienated from this difficult group of people.
The cast have a superb rapport, they live as a family: the little nuances, looks and frustrations are utterly in sync.
Some minor changes have been made since it appeared at Second Stage, including the welcome removal of a rock number at the end of the first act as well as the chopping of a strange song about shopping from early in the show. These changes, though small, improve the pacing of the show. The director Michael Greif has done an outstanding job of making the show work in a larger space, losing none of the intimacy or immediacy of the piece. Part of the strength lies in the confident, genre-straddling score that includes elements of country and jazz.
The concept of Next To Normal, a musical about mental illness, might make some people hesitant. But it would be foolish to give in to that hesitancy and miss what is a powerful, moving and truly exciting production, one of the best of the year.