You may want to bring along some tissues to Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s deeply felt musical Next to Normal, currently on view at Broadway’s Booth Theatre under the surehanded direction of Michael Greif, as the production takes the audience on an amazing emotional journey that plumbs the depths of despair while also offering a vision of hope. What has evolved from three prior incarnations of the show — the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival version entitled Feeling Electric, the 2008 Off-Broadway production at Second Stage and a more recent revised mounting at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage — has resulted in a version of the musical that is simply outstanding.
Next to Normal tackles head-on the issue of mental illness and the treatments that may or may not make things better. Diana (Alice Ripley) suffers from a severe case of bipolar disorder and hallucinogenic episodes as a result of a past trauma, which is revealed midway through the first act. Her husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer) has remained steadfastly by her through the years, shepherding his wife through various doctors, pill regimens, and ultimately electroshock therapy. Also involved are the couple’s son Gabe (Aaron Tveit), daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), Natalie’s new boyfriend Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat), and the doctors who treat Diana’s illness (both portrayed by Louis Hobson).
The show’s vibrant score (featuring music by Kitt and lyrics by Yorkey) demonstrates rock, pop, jazz, country, and even classical influences. It retains several terrific numbers from earlier productions, including Natalie’s “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” which acutely pinpoints her unhappiness about having to compete unfairly with a brother who seemingly can’t do anything wrong; “My Psychopharmacologist and I,” Diana’s whimsical tune about her drug treatments; and the gorgeous ballad, “I Miss the Mountains,” which keenly expresses Diana’s yearning to experience the feelings she had when she was not sedated by the drugs she takes; while “A Light in the Dark,” sung by Dan to Diana, has been reworked into a very effective first act closer. Among the new songs, “Wish I Were Here,” about Diana’s electroshock therapy, is a vast improvement over the song it replaced (“Feeling Electric”), while “Maybe” is a poignant and tender tune that deepens the troubled relationship between mother and daughter.
The production is blessed by a luminous performance from Ripley, who wrings out both the humor and tragedy of her role, while sounding terrific in each and every one of her songs. Spencer, who joined the cast during its Arena leg, presents an appropriately bland persona in the first act, and then slowly reveals the emotional damage that Dan has also suffered over the years — and the reprise of “I Am the One,” sung between Dan and Gabe towards the end of the musical, remains the most devastating moment in the show.
Tveit has a vibrant presence that shines in songs such as the anthem, “I’m Alive,” and a sweet tenor that slips easily into a haunting falsetto. Damiano and Chanler-Berat have grown into their performances, and the Natalie and Henry romance now registers as a moving counterpoint to Diana and Dan’s relationship. Hobson, who also joined the company at Arena, is effective as the doctors, and particularly quite funny in the moments when Diana imagines his character as a rock star.
Fans of Next to Normal may still miss certain elements from prior incarnations of the show — for example, one of my favorite songs in the score, “Growing Up Unstable,” has been excised — but by and large, the changes have made an already dynamic and exciting musical even better.