The playbills at Next to Normal should come with a warning: “The show you are about to see may result in overwhelming sadness, uncontrollable tears or a desire to call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while and tell him or her that you love them.” Those are just a few possible reactions to this overwhelmingly emotional and achingly honest musical currently in performances at the Booth Theater.
Next to Normal, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and composed by Tom Kitt, tells the story of a suburban family in which the mother (Diana, played by Alice Ripley) suffers from bipolar disorder. Prescribed countless medications, she is unhappy with her emotionless existence and desperate to experience life fully. The flaw in that plan is the hallucinations she experiences when not taking the medications, tempting her to dangerous and self-destructive behavior.
An examination of Diana’s life, as well as her family’s, follows, and it isn’t easy to watch as they struggle desperately to appear like everyone else. It hurts when her everlastingly loyal husband, played by J. Robert Spencer, takes her back to the doctor again and again and ceaselessly encourages her to keep hoping for a treatment that will cure her. It’s hard to watch her daughter Natalie, in a fierce performance by Jennifer Damiano, turn a stiff and cold shoulder to her mother while simultaneously longing for her approval and love. It’s almost impossible to watch her son Gabe (Aaron Tveit, in a spellbinding and star-making performance) act as both the angel and devil to his mother’s existence.
It is even more difficult to watch Diana interact with all of them. In a remarkably textured performance with endless depths, Alice Ripley infuses Diana with childlike innocence and adult weariness. This apparently tireless actress almost never leaves the stage, belting rock songs and whispering ballads, screaming hysterical rants and speaking heartbreaking monologues. Ripley’s performance, depicting Diana’s constant struggle between the world her family wants her to be a part of and the world she is endlessly tempted by, is a Tony-worthy tour-de-force, making the illness a frightening reality and making Diana a believable, sympathetic, full-fledged woman instead of the over-the-top stereotype she would devolve into in the hands of a less capable actress.
The same can be said of every member of the cast, who interact seamlessly and are truly believable as a family, complete with the furious, desperate love that they are struggling to share with each other. Spencer’s Dan is strong while quietly breaking inside, while Damiano gives Natalie’s teenage rage authenticity. Her relationship with Henry (an affable Adam Chanler-Berat) is sweet and endearing, injecting a much-needed note of hope into an otherwise staggeringly heartbreaking show. One source of that heartbreak is Gabe, who, played by Tveit, is dangerously seductive, a beautifully frightening and nightmarish source of fear and desperation.
Staged on a sleek metallic set, which easily switches from a kitchen to a doctor’s office to a hospital, the show is smooth and fluid, efficiently directed by Michael Greif and lingering just enough to have its impact without being overwrought. The topic of Next to Normal show is an uncomfortable, awkward one that many would shy away from, but this show treats it with a straightforward approach that is forthright while still respectful.
Next to Normal hard to watch, but it’s impossible not to watch. Even if you want to turn away from the stage – possibly to wipe your eyes or hunt in your purse for a handkerchief – you have to look back as soon as possible.