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Next to Normal

This flawed but emotionally resonant musical is blessed by a luminous performance from Alice Ripley. logo
Brian d'Arcy James and Alice Ripley
in Next to Normal
(© Joan Marcus)
Next to Normal isn't exactly a light evening in the theater. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's flawed but emotionally resonant musical, currently on view at Second Stage Theatre, tackles head-on the issue of depression, and the treatments that may or may not make things better. But while the show, directed by Michael Greif, plumbs the depths of despair, it also offers a vision of hope.

Diana (Alice Ripley) suffers from severe depression and hallucinogenic episodes as a result of a past trauma, which is revealed midway through the first act but is such a powerful moment within the script that it shouldn't be spoiled. Her husband Dan (Brian d'Arcy James) has remained steadfastly by her, shepherding his wife through various doctors, pill regimens, and ultimately electroshock therapy.

The musical -- with music by Kitt and book and lyrics by Yorkey -- was originally presented at the 2005 New York Musical Theatre Festival under the title Feeling Electric. There have been several changes made since then, not all of them for the better. One of the more ill-advised choices was to beef up the role of Dan and Diana's teenage daughter, Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), giving her a boyfriend named Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat) and an overly sentimental love story subplot. The duets added for the young lovers are the least interesting musically, and it also doesn't help matters that Damiano and Chanler-Berat have zero chemistry.

On the plus side, the show remains a compelling look at the imprecision of psychiatry and medical science, while at the same time not denying their value. Dr. Madden (Asa Somers), who ultimately prescribes the electroshock treatment, is genuinely trying to help his patient after seemingly exhausting all other options. "Medicine isn't perfect, but it's what we have," he says.

The production is also blessed by a luminous performance from Ripley, who wrings out both the humor and tragedy of her role. A post-shock treatment scene in which she stares blankly, unable to recognize her own daughter, is extremely poignant. D'Arcy James conveys well his character's stoicism, and a duet between Dan and his son Gabe (Aaron Tveit) towards the end of the musical remains the most devastating moment in the show. And yet, there are times when you wish the actor would allow the audience to see a little bit more underneath the surface of his portrayal.

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. Somers, however, is a little too stiff as Madden, and can't quite sell the image of the rock star that Diana projects onto him.

The musical showcases several terrific numbers, 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 catchy "Let There Be Light," which bookends the musical. However, despite a few jazzy flourishes here and there, the remainder of the score has a very generic pop-rock feel to it. Sound designer Brian Ronan hasn't quite got the balance right, with the percussion and bass often drowning out the rest of the orchestra, and a tinny overamplification of the spoken dialogue that is off-putting.

While it's inevitable that the intimacy of the NYMF production could not be maintained in a bigger theater, Greif's staging often seems to flatten out the action. Visually, he mixes things up by making frequent use of Mark Wendland's industrial, three-level set. But it feels too presentational, and the actors on stage have to really work to establish the kinds of connections they should be able to make more naturally. That they succeed often enough is a testament to the material, which -- despite its imperfections -- remains dynamic and moving.

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