Alice Ripley is fierce - at least that's how she's affectionately described in the cult musical comedy [title of show]. Like Sherie Rene Scott, Idina Menzel or Julia Murney, Ripley brings an electrifying, urgent intensity to edgy rock musicals. And Ripley's ferocity is displayed with shimmering clarity in Next to Normal.
Originally titled Feeling Electric, this absolutely gorgeous, invigorating rock musical follows Diana, a suburban mother suffering from bipolar disorder. After a series of severe manic-depressive episodes and constant hallucinations, Ripley's character undergoes electroshock therapy. But more than that, the show explores family, grief, loss and memory.
When the show played Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre in the winter of 2008, it received mixed but generally supportive reviews, with most critics complaining that the piece was structurally flawed. For instance, many pointed to its gaudy Act One finale, where the mother's doctor turned into a punk rock star in a dream sequence.
Now parked at Arena Stage in Arlington, Virginia ( its regular home in Washington, DC is under renovation), the musical's creators have streamlined and tightened the piece into more of a straightforward pop opera. Though there is less production number choreography than before, its blazing score and moving contemporary story have been strengthened for the better. (Some of the show's gorgeous songs include "Miss the Mountains," "Didn't I See This Movie," "A Light in the Dark," "I'm Alive" and "I Am the One.")
J. Robert Spencer (Jersey Boys) successfully portrays Diana's husband as the rock holding the family together unless he himself crumbles, but lacks the heightened sensitivity of his predecessor Brian d'Arcy James, who is now in Shrek the Musical. In addition to Ms. Ripley, other holdovers from the Off-Broadway production include Aaron Tveit, Jennifer Damiano and Adam Chanler-Berat
Tom Kitt, who also wrote music for the underrated rock musical High Fidelity, has provided a dynamic score with memorable rock anthems. Michael Grief, director of Rent, has staged the action on an industrial, three-story industrial set.
Will the damn show eventually transfer to Broadway, where it belongs? Who knows! Nevertheless, this is truly one of the most ambitious and invigorating contemporary rock musicals, period. It at least deserves a cast album.
Arena Stage in Crystal City, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, Virginia. www.arenastage.org.