A powerful ‘Next to Normal’ rocks you to the core, but Alice Ripley needs vocal rest

Curt Hansen, Alice Ripley and Asa Somers in “Next to Normal”

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 >

10 thoughts on “A powerful ‘Next to Normal’ rocks you to the core, but Alice Ripley needs vocal rest

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Being a Ripley fan for years, it was heartbreaking to hear her once-powerful instrument reduced to what sounded like crying for most of the show. That said, the show is great – and Asa Somers is really great as Dan.

    1. There’s a discussion brewing in response to Chris Jones’ review of the show, where he called her vocals “dangerous,” and implied they were a choice. While I’m sure the timidity in her singing was a character choice, as were maybe a few cracks in her voice to add to the pain of her character’s journey, the (very) flat singing and odd pronunciations of words to reach the notes are not choices — they’re simply the results of overuse combined with poor technique. A pity, as, like you, I’ve been a long admirer of Ripley’s. I still am, but just a very concerned one.

  2. Hey Bob,

    So glad you got to see it – and didn’t let a little barrier like police tape stop you!

    I saw N2N on Broadway and I thought Alice Ripley was amazing, fearsome and scary and powerful. I was close enough to see the anguish in her eyes. It’s one of the most compelling and unique musicals I’ve seen for the way it explores how mental illness affects not just the suffering person but the entire family. (There’s a line where Natalie asks her mother if she loves her and Diana responds, “As much as I can.” Devastating in its honesty but not what Natalie really wants to hear.)

    But I can understand how her performance can also wreck her voice. I was at the stage door and she came out and stood there for a long time, making her way around the circle of fans, having lengthy conversations (including with me). I think because of the subject, the show probably attracts people who have some experience with mental illness in their families and Ripley must be cognizant of that. She makes an extra effort to connect when she probably should be resting her voice.

    I didn’t see the tour when it came to Providence but I’ve heard that her understudy went on a few times, so maybe she is taking a rest now and then. But it’s understandable in a major city like Chicago why she’d want to go on.

  3. I went to see about getting a last minuite ticket last night, and she was not in the show, so I skipped it. Seems she is taking your advice.

  4. Puh-leese! Alice Ripley apparently has no concern for her fans or anyone. She didn’t even bother to show up for her Friday performance in Chicago. What kind of a “head-iner” is a no-show for any Friday or Saturday night performance. (Especially during a limited run?!)

    The Hell with you, Ms Ripley!

    1. Now, now. Let’s not get out of control here. She’s a human being — and a very talented one, at that. I’m glad she’s not pushing herself to do further damage, but it’s too bad she had to take the much-needed rest during such a high-profile stop in the tour.

  5. I went to the may 6th show, and RIpley’s voice was borderline awful. Some of her words were incomprehensible, and painful to listen to. Thank gosh the rest of the cast and the story line held everything together. I would love to see it again, if either Ripley isnt the star, or she got some rest.

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