The touring version of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal arrived recently in Pittsburgh. Though the story is a heavy family drama, the script and score offer humor and light moments without minimizing the seriousness of the lives we see on stage. We are shown the effects one character's bi-polar disorder has on all members of the family, through years of manic and depressive episodes and a multitude of treatments and side effects. But, as that character says,"... bi-polar doesn't quite cover it." There is a lot of love in this family, but also resentment, fear, profound sadness and grief.
Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley) was diagnosed years previous with bi-polar disorder. This, combined with a family tragedy, has made for a precarious situation for her, not to mention her husband (Asa Somers), daughter (Emma Hunton) and son (Curt Hansen). The part of their lives we see in Next to Normal is the culmination of years of erratic and embarrassing behavior, and attempts to tolerate and help Diana. Drug and other forms of therapy have unpredictable results. The tension, the stress and the sadness come to a head and force change.
We get a good idea of the relationships among all members of the Goodman family, and how the family as a whole has been held together by a thread for years. This is the third time I've seen Next to Normal through it's evolution from workshop to Off-Broadway, out to a regional production, then back to Broadway, with significant changes along the way - and Alice Ripley has been with the show at each step. She has created this character, and provides quirks and mannerisms that show us that Diana is not quite in the same world as everyone else. Ripley's is a stunning performance, a balancing act, though her singing voice has changed somewhat through the years and is not as clear as it once was.
Asa Somers is tremendous as Dan, a caring and understanding caretaker who is stretched pretty thin. Somers' vocal work is very strong, both in solos and with the rest of the cast. Emma Hunton gave me more insight into Natalie than previous actresses I have seen. She's very authentic, and natural at delivering the sarcasm that Natalie uses to keep people at a distance. Her Natalie fits very well with Preston Sadleir's sweet Henry as the two form a maturing teen couple. Curt Hansen succeeds in the challenging role of son Gabe; he traverse the multi-level set (Mark Wendland) like an acrobat. As Diana's doctors, Jeremy Kushnier is a real stand out; the doctors don't have a lot of speaking or singing time, but they delivery some of the moments of humorous relief, and of course are key in the evolution of Diana's treatment. All in all, this is a wonderful, accomplished cast.
Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey's (lyrics) score is rock influenced, with a few ballads, written with care to illuminate the characters' internal turmoil. There is little in the show that is superfluous; the complexity of the work continues to reveal itself on repeated viewings. The show is brilliantly constructed and a compelling look at one family's story.