Tony Award winner Alice Ripley portrays all the nuances of her bipolar character in Next To Normal.
NEXT TO NORMAL , music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey (Dancap). Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen West). To July 30. 416-644-3665, dancaptickets.com. See listing Rating: NNNN
There are two big surprises in the musical Next To Normal, currently onstage at the Four Seasons.
First shocker is that it works. The story about Diana, a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder, isn't the most predictable theme for an almost rock musical - nothing much to laugh and dance about here. And the last song strikes me as a lazy solution to the "how are we gonna end this thing?" problem. Yet the combination of great performances and a strong emotional through line creates some great theatre.
Second source of amazement: though hers has received the most buzz - and the 2009 Tony Award - the top performance isn't Alice Ripley's as Diana but, rather, Emma Hunton's as her daughter, Natalie. As the teenaged girl rendered invisible by her mother's illness, Hunton shows real depth and sings like a dream.
Preston Sadler as Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, and Asa Somers as Diana's husband are also strong, as is Jeremy Kushnier playing various psychiatrists. Curt Hansen, as Diana's son, is the weak link; he makes Gabe a seducer for reasons that don't make much sense.
With a demanding score featuring complex, interweaving vocal parts that the cast handles with skill, the show is virtually sung through. Don't expect memorable or original melodies. The key here is the lyrical wordplay. The sequence about pharmaceuticals is very clever - a dead-on critique of the psychotropic cocktails doctors love to prescribe - and It's Gonna Be Good is a savvy take on wishful thinking in a family very much in denial.
Let it be said: Ripley is amazing, using her vocal modulations and vivid body language in unusual ways to convey the gamut of mindsets from manic to numb.
It's not a fun show, but Next To Normal never even flirts with agitprop. Near the end, a scene between mother and daughter is unbearably sad, shedding light not just on an illness but on how desperately we all want to connect.
Isn't that what theatre's for?