Next to Normal
Alice Ripley is crazy good in this compelling new musical.
Thu Apr 23 2009
Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J Robert Spencer (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
As Diana in the surprising and moving Next to Normal, Alice Ripley has a voice like steel wool: It's tough and cloudy at once, and it scrubs to the core. There's something slightly off about Ripley's singing—the notes sometimes claw their way up from just under pitch—and this raggedness is perfectly attuned to the mental distress of her character, a psychotic suburban mother guiltily aware of the burden her illness brings to her family. There is nothing glamorous or camp about this unlikely musical-theater heroine, and Ripley is riveting.
It is not easy to pull off a musical about psychotropic drugs and electroconvulsive therapy—or for that matter, about duty, freedom and loss. In its trial mounting at Second Stage last year, Next to Normal sometimes suffered from acute self-consciousness and mood swings. Happily, authors Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt have successfully stabilized the show since then, and their songs make up the best new Broadway score of the season, merging show-tune influences (William Finn neurosis in "My Psychopharmacologist and I") with more radio-ready styles (John Denver wistfulness in "I Miss the Mountains," Seventies pop-rock thrust in the instantly memorable "I'm Alive"). Under Michael Greif's observant eye, the cast of six— which includes J. Robert Spencer as Diana's loyal husband, Jennifer Damiano as her ignored daughter and the charismatic Aaron Tveit as her idealized son—provides excellent support. After a year of hard work, Next to Normal has emerged as that rarest of Broadway species: a thoughtful, emotional musical for grown-ups.—Adam Feldman