A mother's struggle with bipolar disorder and the toll it takes on her family doesn't sound like promising subject matter for a musical. But thanks to dynamic pop-rock music by Tom Kitt and smart book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal is seldom depressing. It's a daring, mostly successful musical combining elements of The Who's Tommy with a plot that includes electroshock treatments. The outstanding cast, led by Alice Ripley and Brian d'Arcy James, helps make it an exciting, energizing show.
Ripley and d'Arcy James play Diana and Dan, a seemingly happy married couple who have some serious problems. Diana has bipolar depression with delusional episodes, according to a doctor (Asa Somers). This means she occasionally collapses in the middle of Costco and imagines her doctor to be a rock star. To control her wild mood swings, Diana takes an assortment of pills. My psychopharmacologist and I, it's like an odd romance, she sings. Another lyric goes These are a few of my favorite pills.
Diana's instability weighs on the very patient Dan and their teenage daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), who could use more parental attention. At least Natalie's classmate Henry (Adam Chanier-Berat) dotes on her, and they start dating. Meanwhile, Diana spends too much time thinking about her son Gabe (Aaron Tvelt), for reasons that become clear in the middle of the first act.
Like Diana, Next to Normal has its ups and downs. The songs range from hard-driving rock numbers to the country-inflected Miss the Mountains, in which Diana admits she misses the highs and lows she once experienced. Whether she's crooning a touching ballad or rocking like Joan Jett, Ripley sings her heart out. She acts her heart out too, as does d'Arcy James as the long-suffering Dan. While Ripley tackles a range of singing styles, d'Arcy James uses his tender tenor to excellent effect. Tveit also hits sweet-sounding high notes, when he's not bounding across the stage in the high-energy I'm Alive. Damiano makes a very credible angst-ridden teen-perhaps because she is only 16. Chandler-Berat is amiably sympathetic as Henry, and Somers ably doubles as two doctors who aren't shy about prescribing pills or electroshock therapy.
It's when poor Diana is strapped down for shock therapy that Next to Normal particularly recalls the seminal rock musical The Who's Tommy. Mark Wendland's three-level set is decked out with scores of lightbulbs that add further wattage to a show that already boasts bravura belting and ample amplification. At times, in fact, the hard-hitting Next to Normal comes on a bit too strong. Director Michael Greif (Rent, Grey Gardens) could lower the volume and tone down the tear jerking in some scenes.
It will be interesting to see if this dysfunctional-family musical will have a commercial run, and if so whether it will find an audience. Despite the dark storyline, Next to Normal's invigorating pop-rock score and often electrifying performances pack a wallop.