I’d been really looking forward to this one. Not only have I heard amazing things about this Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, but the original star of the show, Alice Ripley, was recreating her Tony-winning role in the national tour. Which is, unfortunately, so incredibly rare. I mean, that wasn’t the case back in the era of Merman and Martin, but today? Notsomuch. The last time I recall this happening was when Cherry Jones toured with Doubt in 2007 (and she was amazing).
So, of course, 45 minutes before curtain, as my two friends and I were finishing up dinner at Beef and Brandy, we were told we couldn’t leave the restaurant due to a bomb being diffused across the street. In fact, we had to move to the back of the restaurant in case “the bomb goes off and the glass shatters.”
Ten minutes before curtain, with no update from the police, I gathered up my coat and backpack, told my friends to do the same, and we marched out of Beef and Brandy. I was NOT going to miss this, bomb threats be damned. So out the door, down the street, and under the yellow police tape we went to the Bank of America Theatre.
The show is a powerhouse. Emotionally gripping, filled with tension, anger, fear and hope, Next to Normal honestly depicts how mental illness can rip apart a family. Diana Goodman (Ripley) is suffering from bipolar disorder (and maybe a touch of schizophrenia), and has been on drugs and treatment plans for 16 years. When we meet her, she’s at her breaking point. Her supportive husband, Dan (Asa Somers), is at his wits’ end, and their daughter (Emma Hunton) feels isolated and angry. It comes to the point where they are forced to make some very critical decisions about Diana’s health — essentially the last resort for mental illness treatment: electroconvulsive therapy.
Seeing the barrage of medicines and treatments and the quantity of unknowns freely admitted by Diana’s doctor (Jeremy Kushner) in managing mental illness, it made me think of The Madness of George III, currently playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. There, poor King George undergoes a crapshoot of regimens to treat his madness (not knowing he actually had a blood disorder), and with no other alternative, he acquiesces. Same with Diana: she can only surrender to the these experimental plans. She’s powerless.
Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) have created one of the best new scores in a decade or more, full of grit, wit and fire — and it reserves its rock-edged energy for key moments when emotions boil over. There are also many quiet, plaintive passages, including the standout number, “I Miss the Mountains,” when Diana makes the brave decision to flush her mind-numbing meds down the toilet and reconnect with her life.
Ok. Let’s get this out of the way: it pains me to say this, but Alice Ripley was the biggest disappointment. To be fair, she’s giving one of the most emotionally committed performances I’ve ever seen. Her delicate features are constantly twisted up in a mix of confusion, bewilderment and pain. She is living this role. But the score, which requires high belting and fierce energy, has obviously taken a huge toll on her voice — to the point that it’s painful to listen to. The fact that the role is mostly sung undermines Ripley’s amazing acting.
The revelation here is Hunton as brooding daughter Natalie — particularly in the final heartbreaking scenes with her mother. She’s someone to watch. Somers also fares quite well as a father and husband who’s doing his very best to remain strong for his family so it doesn’t all fall apart. Curt Hansen as Diana and Dan’s son also makes a very strong impression. (Where does the son come into play? See the show to find out.)
I’d recommend Next to Normal to anyone who wants to see a powerful new musical that fearlessly tackles an unexpected subject matter. But be prepared, the star of the show is now the show itself, and Alice Ripley needs to get some vocal rest. Stat.
“Next to Normal” plays through May 8 at the Bank of America Theatre. More info here >