NEXT TO NORMAL is an Emotional Rollercoaster

by Arnie Finkel

I don’t know how many seats there are in the Academy Of Music, but the entire house was on their feet in a standing ovation saluting the superb six person cast of NEXT TO NORMAL.  It was richly deserved.

Alice Ripley & Curt Hansen in NEXT TO NORMAL at Phladelphia's Academy of Music through June 26. (Photo Craig Schwartz)

Let me say first as a warning, this musical drama is anything but a “tired businessman’s show”.  Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics deal with the effects of Diana Goodman’s bipolar disorder and its effect on her family.  It will put you through an emotional wringer.  The journey is well worth the catharsis it evokes.

Tom Kitt’s rock inspired score has its antecedents in RENT and SPRING AWAKENING.  Both these show handle important subjects in a rock score.  The music is demanding vocally and is handled brilliantly by the entire cast. Stand-in Perry Sherman, in the best tradition of theater was seamless in the part of Gabe regularly played by Curt Hansen.  It’s the part originated by Aaron Tvett on Broadway (He is now starring in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN).

I was impressed by the performance of Asa Somers as Diana’s troubled husband Dan.  His emotional distress and inability to cope with his wife’s disease were communicated clearly and were emotional triggers to me.  Emma Hunton as Natalie, Diana’s neglected 16 year old daughter, has a great voice and was totally believable.  They are ably abetted by Preston Sadler as Henry, Natalie’s 17 year old boy friend, and Jeremy Kushnier as both of the doctors treating Diana.

Alice Ripley stars in NEXT TO NORMAL at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia through June 26. (Photo credit: Craig Schwartz)

Alice Ripley, as Diana, is or should be a national treasure.   It is amazing that she can perform this vocally and emotionally demanding role 8 times a week and still keeps it so fresh. She is totally worthy of her 2009 Tony in this role.  Her voice is distinctive.  There is a raspiness but such power and clarity.  She inhabits Diana in every sense.

Mark Wendland has designed a bare bones set that allows for a flow of the action and houses the orchestra as well.  The spare orchestration is powerful but is always an accompaniment, not a distraction.

This was the second time I have experienced NEXT TO NORMAL and it was every bit as entrancing as the first time. The play won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.   It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is an exceptional piece of music drama.   If you love good theater, and can accept a challenge, don’t miss NEXT TO NORMAL.

Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
June 21-26, 2011Kimmel Center
Academy of Music
1420 Locust St
Philadelphia PA

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