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Theater review: ‘Next to Normal’ at Kennedy Center

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“Next to Normal” hurts so good.

The smiles it engenders are the marveling kind, etched in tears. The emotional rhythms of this exhilarating show, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, do not correspond to the frivolous fare that all but defines the modern American musical. It’s a work that sings from a bruised heart, not a contented one.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a downer. Far from it. With an achingly poignant score by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, “Next to Normal” seeks to find a melodic language for a wrenchingly everyday ordeal: one woman’s up-and-down journey through mental illness.

In the songwriters’ rigorous effort, there seems a parallel to the character’s valiant struggle, so you become immersed in the authenticity of the story’s mechanics as well as her desperate search for a refuge from pain.

The triumphal marriage of a serious social issue to pop entertainment is a special occasion for musical theater. But if you require your musicals to take you to the land of the dancing girls, then “Next to Normal,” in its too-brief stay in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, is not for you. All others are likely to be deeply taken with the turbulent life of Alice Ripley’s Diana Goodman and the brutal hoops her illness forces her family to jump through.

The musical, ingeniously staged by Michael Greif — who also directed “Rent” — never strays far from the therapeutic path of Diana, who, encouraged by her long-suffering and all but suffocating husband, Dan (Asa Somers), turns to pills, hypnosis and even electroshock therapy in the elusive pursuit of personal peace.

The agonizing strains her sickness places on the family are most apparent in the anger of their teenage daughter, Natalie (Emma Hunton), who snarls impatiently at her mother and chafes at the tenderness of Henry (Preston Sadleir), her tolerant, one-of-a-kind boyfriend.

The show is sympathetic to all of its characters, although less so perhaps to the live-wire son, played by Curt Hansen, who instigates, let us say, a unique dimension of the family dynamic. It even looks fairly benevolently on the members of the helping profession (embodied by Jeremy Kushnier), who earnestly offer treatment after treatment for Diana’s tenacious disease.

As suggested in Diana’s wistful rock ballad, “I Miss the Mountains,” an audience member is compelled to wonder whether Diana can ever be satisfactorily divested of illness — and whether the campaign to suppress it is a formula for even more pain.

Ripley has been portraying Diana since the musical was first presented more than three years ago off Broadway, at New York’s Second Stage. The dramatic performance — for which she deservedly won the Tony — is at the point of second skin now. (This is her second visit to the Washington area as Diana: She played the part in late 2008 at Arena Stage, where “Next to Normal” was polished up after the initial off-Broadway run received mixed reviews.)

It’s a portrayal so natural that it at times feels improvisatory. Her supple illumination of her character’s point of view allows us fully to luxuriate in Diana’s sense of irony, and as a result, her turn is funnier now, too.

The voice, however, yearns for a rest. The demands of Kitt’s explosive music for Diana — she must blast musical notes of outrage out of the top of her register — have left her raspy. This works to a large degree for a character who has been pushed to the limit by medication and hospitals and psychiatrists. But you feel for the challenges that have been placed on the actress, too.

Ripley is the sole holdover from the original Broadway cast; (the original Natalie, Jennifer Damiano, is now the love interest in “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark,” and Aaron Tveit, who originated the role of her brother, is the lead in the musical version of “Catch Me If You Can.”) Their successors are fine, and the vocally powerful Hunton, who invests Natalie with a more aggressive fury, is better than fine; she’s major.

Both Kushnier, seen recently in Signature Theatre’s “Chess,” and Somers have thrilling, octave-scaling voices. (You believe thoroughly in Diana’s delusion that one of the doctors Kushnier portrays is a rock star.) Somers churns Dan’s ballads, especially the Act 1 closer, “A Light in the Dark,” into creamy butter. And Sadleir brings a charming callowness to his offbeat, nice-guy role.

True to its quest for an honest account of the trials of a tormented mind, “Next to Normal” does not offer the actors, or us, an easy out. “The price of love is loss, and still we pay,” Kushnier sings, at evening’s end. “We love anyway.” Even in the articulation of bittersweet realities, there can be great vibrations.

Next to Normal

music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Michael Greif. Set, Mark Wendland; costumes, Jeff Mahshie; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronan; musical staging, Sergio Trujillo; orchestrations, Michael Starobin and Kitt; music director, Bryan Perri. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through July 10 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.

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