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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Powerful Homecoming for Next to Normal
at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Next to Normal
Jeremy Kushnier, Alice Ripley and Asa Somers
When Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt were experimenting with a wild new musical called Feeling Electric at Issaquah's Village Theatre about five years ago, I was in the cheering section at the workshop performance. I couldn't have been more pleased when, after years of reworking and being retitled Next to Normal, the show was warmly embraced by critics and crowds on Broadway, won its authors (and opening leading lady Alice Ripley) Tony Awards, and, finally a Pulitzer Prize. Unable to see the show in during its New York run, I was psyched when it was announced to play at the 5th Avenue Theatre, where the national touring company, led by Ripley, opened last week Thursday.

[Warning for those who haven't seen the show: there are spoilers in the next paragraph.]

Next to Normal is a harrowing, heartfelt, darkly comic and utterly human original musical. It is not a rock re-working of La Boheme or a tongue in cheek valentine to musical comedy clichés. It is the tale of a family that has been lost for a long time. Diana Goodman is bi-polar, a vet of just about every possible treatment known to modern medicine, and living in denial of the death of her infant son some 17 years earlier. But she sees the boy, Gabe, grown into young manhood perhaps more clearly than she does her at wits end husband Dan and younger, neglected daughter Natalie. Following a suicide attempt, one of Diana's doctors recommends electroshock therapy. After an initially repulsed response (Diana identifies electroshock therapy in the dated terms as represented in One Flew The Cuckoo's Nest) she submits to it and loses years of memories. As they gradually return, Dan labors to keep Gabe's life and death from Diana, but of course it eventually comes out, triggering a change of dynamics in all their lives, but possibly hope for better days ahead, especially for Natalie.

Michael Grief's direction is straightforward and powerful. Tom Kitt's score is the freshest and fiercest to hit Broadway in some years, while Yorkey's book and lyrics are sharp, sassy, and visceral as needed. The show feels nearly thorough-sung, so it is hard to single out individual numbers, but Diana's sweeping "I Miss the Mountains," Gabe's "I'm Alive," and Natalie's wrenching "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" are indeed standout pieces.

Of the original cast, only Ripley tours with the show, and as an actress she clearly shows, in this monumental role, the range of emotional power that won her the Tony. Her voice, at least on opening night, was often strained, flatting out and challenging to listen to. I applaud her show must go on bravura, but was happy to hear she has been spelled by her standby at several post-opening performances. One hopes that committing to singing this challenging music for so many consecutive performances has not taken an irreparable toll on Ripley in the long-term.

The rest of the ensemble cast triumph in both their acting and singing, led by Asa Somers' masterful, multi-layered performance as Dan. Somers' voice is quite a unique and special thrill to listen to, and hard to compare with any other male voice I've heard from Broadway in some years. Emma Hunton is flat-out mesmerizing as the lost Natalie, easily swaying from self-deprecation and self-pity to a mournful needing to be needed, not to mention seen and rejoiced in. Curt Hansen crafts Gabe as a seductive, amazingly appealing figure, and one Diana may possibly never be fully able to leave behind her. Jeremy Kushnier shines as two of Diana's doctors, and is especially notable as the one who Diana is told is a kind of a rock-star (a sequence in which Yorkey's own biting humor is given full sway), while Preston Sadleir holds his own in this electric company, as Natalie's erstwhile and steadfast boyfriend Henry.

Set designer Mark Wendland employs multiple spaces within an ingenious house layout where the family's transactions are interspersed with four groupings of players from the show's accomplished band, and slide panels illuminate aspects of Diana's haunting face. Kevin Adams' lighting design is no less responsible for dazzling our visual senses, as much as the cast tears away at our emotions.

Don't miss the show even if you hear that Ripley is still out for vocal rest. Word on the street is that her standby is top-notch and, as ambitious and difficult as this show is, Next to Normal deserves to be seen in this sort of first-class production.

Next to Normal runs through March 13, 5th Avenue Theater, 1308 Fifth Ave, downtown Seattle. For more information go to www.5thavenue.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.nexttonormal.com.


Photo: Craig Schwartz

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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