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Next to Normal

Dark and Disturbing

The whole world is crazy, happiness is but an illusion, life equals pain, and we’re all teetering on the brink of a psychotic break. Cue the show tunes!

Next to Normal, now playing at the Curran Theatre, is just your average, everyday Tony Award-wining musical starring Bipolar Disorder — wait, what? Show tunes and psychological mood disorders? Exactly. Unlike such classic up-lifters as The Sound of Music where the songs transport you to magical, dreamy worlds of raindrops and roses, Next to Normal keeps you firmly planted in the harsh, realistic, Prozac state of the now. And just like manic-depression, the production suffers from extreme highs and lows.

Set in suburbia, with a set design that far more accurately resembles a prison than a home, we’re taken inside the slice of life world of a typical American family just trying to “keep their plates spinning and their cups from tipping.” At first glance, you immediately relate to the characters in the same way that Jerry Seinfeld has us laughing at ourselves and the honest truths of life (i.e., the worry-wart mother, the marriage with the less-than-stimulating sex life, the sarcastic teenagers giving their parents the roll of the eyes, etc.).

But the production quickly edges toward the macabre as the plot takes a sharp and unpredictable twist revealing the grief and pain-ridden past of bipolar housewife/mother Diana, played by Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley. As she spirals out of control, the affects of her illness impact her family like a tornado and they all begin to unravel at the seams.

However, like most slice of life dramas dealing with internal conflicts, the success of the story lies deep within the audience-character connection (i.e., feeling empathy for them, caring about their plot in life, etc.). Although Ripley’s throaty, soulful voice is spot-on for the role, at times the emotions feel forced and stiff. Adding to this, her unique singing style makes it somewhat challenging to understand the lyrics. Thus, maintaining a strong connection with her character ebbs and flows.

Her highlight performance, however, comes at the point when, so doped-up on anti-depressants and psychotropics, Diana’s emotionally numb self craves for some semblance of her life back.
“I miss the mountains, I miss the highs and lows,” she sings.
The song itself is fantastic and she powerfully nails that yearning desire to return to better times. The scene concludes with her flushing the pills, making it “the happiest septic tank on the block.”

But far and above, the must-see talent of the show is Emma Hunton, who plays Diana’s teenage daughter Natalie. At once painfully vulnerable and inspiringly strong, she fully embodies what theater folks call “using your instrument.” When she sings, you truly feel her raw and authentic emotions. And be it her strained relationship with her mother, distant relationship with her father, or awkward teenage romance with boyfriend Henry (Preston Sadleir), every interaction she has on stage is when the audience perks up (from slower scenes) and moves to the edge of their seat. In the number, “Superboy and Invisible Girl,” she dynamically expresses her deep-seated pain in having a mother who is so wrapped up in her own turmoil that she neglects to see, hear, and love her own daughter in the way that she so desperately needs.

Also, delivering a noteworthy performance, is Jeremy Kushner who breathes refreshing life into the role of the psychiatrist. Adding much-needed comic relief, he masterfully switches demeanors instantaneously from a calm, reserved doctor to a crazy, rock ’n’ roller devilishly singing to his patient Diana, “Tell me everything!”

Unfortunately, as the show concludes and the characters resolve their situations, embrace their craziness, and “see the light,” the audience is still left in the dark. Without a noticeable shift in character transformation, the end comes too abruptly and the audience is left clueless as to why everyone on stage feels better. The production is a bit of a downer, but with superb talent in the mix, injections of high-flying uppers are sprinkled throughout.