Thursday, June 9, 2011

Next to Normal, PlayhouseSquare

(Alice Ripley as Diana.)

Her voice at first has the smooth gloss of a Broadway star. But it isn’t long before another vocal quality becomes apparent. This voice sounds as if it’s been extruded, pushed through the remorseless calendar-die cross-sections of daily life. A voice both blessed and tortured. And the finished product housing that voice, although polished to look at, is brittle and liable to shatter under stress.

This is Diana as played by the magnificent Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her performance in the original Broadway production of Next to Normal, now at PlayhouseSquare. It is a portrayal that cuts through a bold rock music score to plant an indelible impression of bipolar trauma. With a pounding and exuberant score by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this is a production that dives feet first into a delicate subject area and emerges triumphant, although simultaneously downbeat.

Diana is a suburban mom in every jot and tittle, except for the fact that she has a not-easy-to-diagnose mental disturbance. Showing aspects of manic depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior, Diana is a trial to her loving family: husband Dan and children Natalie and Gabe.

Following a familiar pattern, Diana decides to stop taking her pills, encounters a talk therapist, and then spirals down into more serious issues and more extreme outcomes. And, as we learn the trigger for Diana’s troubles, more layers are added to this intense family drama.

If all that sounds like heavy lifting for the audience, fear not. This muscular production directed by Michael Greif is thoroughly captivating from start to finish.

In addition to Ripley’s tour-de-force performance, she is abetted by actors who sing powerfully and contribute clear and convincing characters. Asa Somers as Dan holds his own as the supportive spouse who is entirely out of his depth. Emma Hunton manages a nice mix of empathy, frustration and scorn as she deals with a mother who is rarely there for her. And Curt Hansen’s Gabe floats through the proceedings, always jabbing Diana with his inescapable presence.

In smaller roles, Preston Sadleir is amusing as Natalie’s improv piano playing boyfriend and Jeremy Kushnier renders both doctors with style.

Indeed, the often-enervated casts of the last two Broadway Series productions (especially West Side Story) should sit in this audience and observe how a touring company should perform: with passion and immediacy.

Adding to the powerful overall effect is the set by Mark Wendland that features an industrial three-tiered structure where the rock musicians and the actors do their thing. Accented by projections of house’s bland siding, and a woman’s face, the many lights on the spare crossbeams gleam and are extinguished like the uncertain synapses in Diana’s brain.

And on top of all that, there are trenchant thoughts that glitter amidst the dark turbulence of Diana’s struggles. Such as, “Most people who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it long enough.” And, “The price of love is loss, but still we pay.”

If the subject matter gives you qualms, overcome them. There’s a reason why Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama plus a Tony for the original score. This is a complete theatrical treat, stimulating and profound, and it is not to be missed.

Next to Normal

Through June 19 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

No comments: