Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Next to Normal

Also see Susan's reviews of Blackbird and Twelfth Night

Aaron Tveit as Gabe, Alice Ripley as Diana and J. Robert Spencer
Next to Normal, now at Arena Stage in Arlington, Virginia, is a bruising and brilliant musical that takes the audience inside the head of a woman coping with emotional illness. The work premiered last year in New York City, and Arena has reunited authors Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) with director Michael Greif and four of the original six cast members to refocus and extend the material. (Unlike most Washington productions, this one ran for two weeks of previews before opening for critics.)

The musical follows Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley), a beautiful and intelligent woman with a diagnosis of "bipolar with occasional hallucinations," and her family: her sensitive husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer) and their children, rebellious Gabe (Aaron Tveit) and overachieving Natalie (Jennifer Damiano). Together and as individuals, they attempt to navigate the landscape of psychopharmacology, self-medication, and facing up to past trauma.

That description sounds downbeat and grim, but Next to Normal is anything but. While the source material is often sad, Kitt's intense musical score and Yorkey's clever and lacerating lyrics provide dynamic underscoring and provide a way for the audience to experience life through Diana's perspective.

Ripley's kaleidoscopic performance takes Diana on a journey from ecstatic moments of mania, through uncontrolled depression and angry frenzy, to an eerie calm and partial loss of memory following electroconvulsive therapy. Spencer's role is more quietly moving as Dan works to keep his family together, loving Diana while hating the disease that has disfigured their lives.

The rest of the cast is just as strong: Damiano, a young woman seeking both validation and independence who, without realizing it, may be heading toward her own form of emotional self-destruction; Adam Chanler-Berat, the easygoing classmate who befriends her; Tveit, Diana's confidant and supporter; and Louis Hobson as two contrasting psychiatrists.

Mark Wendland's industrial-inspired scenic design and Kevin Adams' lighting use photographic panels and bars of neon-toned light (lavender, intense blue, red, hot pink) to echo Diana's shifting moods. Sergio A. Trujillo's musical staging bridges the naturalistic with the surreal, and the six musicians, including conductor Charlie Alterman, provide support at every step.

Arena Stage
Next to Normal November 29th, 2008-January 19th, 2009
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Henry: Adam Chanler-Berat
Natalie: Jennifer Damiano
Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine: Louis Hobson
Diana: Alice Ripley
Dan: J. Robert Spencer
Gabe: Aaron Tveit
Directed by Michael Greif
1800 S. Bell St.
Arlington, VA 22202
Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

Photo: Joan Marcus

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