Thanks to Alice Ripley's masterful, astonishing performance, Next to Normal is transporting from the first moment, and devastating to the last note. While it may not fit the picture of a buoyant broadway musical built for easy crowd-pleasing, this nuanced portrait of madness and grief provides more emotional payoff than most nights I've had in a theater.
The story tracks Diana (Ripley), wife, mother, and sufferer of mental illness. Her instability stems from events treated with such delicacy in the production that revealing them in a review would deplete one of the most thoughtfully achieved aspects of the production. As Diana's connection to reality slips through her fingers, her family becomes increasingly desperate to maintain their own connection to the wife and mother they love. Ultimately, the story is not only about madness - it's about the delicate nature of the human capacity for love, and both the destruction and the mending that love can do for the soul.
A long development period has paid off in spades for Next to Normal, which ran Off-Broadway at Second Stage before transferring to Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage, and finally venturing to Broadway. Creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, with director Michael Greif, have created a finely detailed picture of one family that's been fragmented by the past, each member isolated but desperate to connect. A fine cast treats the material with the requisite sensitivity and nuance, and the design elements actualize the world they live in - sometimes scary, sometimes full of warmth. But Alice Ripley is the crown jewel in the production, radiating pure emotion with every note and gesture. She's funny and loving in one moment, a terrified child the next, while remaining credible as the person whose family would stick with her in the very worst of times. Her portrait of Diane will surely join the ranks of Little Edie, Evita, and Mama Rose in the legion of great unhinged grand dames of musical theater.
Next to Normal is playing at the Booth Theater. Music by Tom Kitt; book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey; directed by Michael Greif; musical staging by Sergio Trujillo; sets by Mark Wendland; costumes by Jeff Mahshie; lighting by Kevin Adams; sound by Brian Ronan; orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Mr. Kitt; vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo; music director, Charlie Alterman; music coordinator, Michael Keller; technical supervisor, Larry Morley. Starring Alice Ripley (Diana), J. Robert Spencer (Dan), Aaron Tveit (Gabe), Jennifer Damiano (Natalie), Adam Chanler-Berat (Henry) and Louis Hobson (Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine).