Theater Review: 'Next to Normal' at Arena Stage

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

They should be handing out tissue boxes with the programs at "Next to Normal," the melodic and blisteringly honest new musical at Arena Stage.

The sniffles you hear up and down the aisles of the company's temporary theater in Crystal City testify to the heart-melting properties of this sensitively crafted show, sung with a wallop by a six-member cast that includes the astonishing Alice Ripley.

The potent feelings are released by something inordinately powerful in the music and the story, which have been meticulously woven together by the songwriting team of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. For despite its medical-issue-of-the-moment orientation -- the principal feature of this tale of suburbia is a bipolar mom -- "Next to Normal" manages to shift its focus to a phenomenon far from clinical: what it means truly to miss someone.

Not so much the physical absence -- but that, too. Anyone who has cared for, or about, a person whose mind or body has been damaged or diminished will want to share the show with a friend and say, "Now do you understand?" The musical explores other devastating aspects of loss, but it would be divulging too much to reveal them here.

Dexterously directed by Michael Greif, of "Rent" fame, "Next to Normal" docks at Arena on the latest leg of an unconventional trajectory. After the show opened last winter at off-Broadway's Second Stage to mixed though encouraging notices, its director, designers and most of its cast decided to stick with the project as composer Kitt and lyricist Yorkey continued to work on the piece. The musical was brought to Arena by a New York producer, David Stone -- who'd been involved in its development for several years -- with the notion of staging it in its revised form.

What was most glaringly out of sync in the earlier version was an impulse to jazz up the story with comic songs and glitzy production numbers. Initially, the pivotal character of Diana, played by Ripley, had a breakdown at a Costco, which gave the songwriters an opportunity not so much to elucidate Diana's condition as to satirize big-box stores. In a cringe-worthy moment that concluded the first act, Diana's electroshock therapy was set to music, complete with the actress strapped to a gurney and a psychiatrist in the getup of a rock star.

Those were among the elements removed. Several new songs were inserted, including "Wish I Were Here," for Diana and her bright teenage daughter, Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), who takes revenge on her mother's incapacitation by popping pills herself. (The first act now makes a softer landing, with the touching "A Light in the Dark.")

The additions and subtractions have demonstrably upgraded the equation. In taking out the more intrusive bits of authorial irony, Kitt and Yorkey give the story more room to breathe and thus to move us. You not only feel more compellingly what Diana has been going through, trying to cope with her own haywire circuitry, but also the frustration of the people around her, as they attempt to wish and coax her back to normalcy -- or, as they sing, something "next" to it.

The spine of the musical is Diana's illness itself; it has the role, in a sense, of the show's most unpredictable character. It seems that Diana, now in early middle age, has been sick for many years, having gone through phases when she's been well and when she has not. The musical follows her, husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer) and Natalie and her pot-smoking boyfriend, Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat), during one of the worst patches, as Diana seesaws through drug, talk and electroshock therapies, successes, relapses and endless questions about why nothing seems to work.

Ripley is a marvel of off-center magnetism, utterly convincing as a woman who knows something is wrong but becomes ever more unsure what getting better is supposed to mean. She handles Diana's anguished ballads as if each might help to quell her troubled psyche. Spencer provides a superb account of a husband who, as he observes in song, has done right by Diana, waiting patiently for the sky to clear. Damiano and Chanler-Berat are an affecting pair, too, as a girl looking for ways to vent her fury and a boy with the staying power to endure it.

All the voices are splendid, and particularly that of the captivating Aaron Tveit, who plays the role of the couple's other child, the source of much of their pain and confusion. (The jacked-up volume of the amplification system might need some adjustment, however.)

From set designer Mark Wendland's metal-framed set, you are supposed to glean the outlines of a generic house in the suburbs and perhaps the idea that the convulsed family of "Next to Normal" could be any of ours. In actuality, Yorkey and Kitt imagine for us a specific gallery of characters, each of whom responds to Diana's disability in a distinct and not always entirely helpful way.

They've stocked the musical with beautiful songs that get to the heart of this deceptively complex story -- and simply get to the heart. As Diana is brought home after one stay in a psychiatric hospital, where her brain has been electrically zapped and her memory damaged as a result, she and Dan sing the "Song of Forgetting": "Sing of not remembering when/Of memories that go unremembered and then/Sing a song of forgetting, again."

You can't help but enlist in Diana's struggle. You want her to be whole, to find herself, to be able to remember. It's a feeling Kitt and Yorkey and Greif and Ripley make sure you won't soon forget.

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; music director, Charlie Alterman; orchestrations, Kitt and Michael Starobin; musical staging, Sergio A. Trujillo. With Louis Hobson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Jan. 18 at Arena Stage in Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Call 202-488-3300 or visit

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