Forget the past. Forget your fears. Move on. How easy it is to say. Not so easy for Diana to do. Diana, brilliantly portrayed by Alice Ripley, is an addicted and troubled suburban housewife in the original, powerful, honest and moving musical, Next to Normal, at the Booth Theatre.
Happily married to Dan (an excellent J. Robert Spencer, a strong and sensitive man who wants so hard to help but doesn’t know how but nonetheless never leaves her side) with two children, Natalie (a confused but sassy Jennifer Damiano) a student of classical music who connects with a pot head, jazz musician, Henry (an endearing Adam Chanler-Berat) and her brother Gabe (Aaron Tveit – who has stardom in his future), Diana has trouble coping with every day life, despite the great sex with her husband. Everything starts off happily enough until she winds up on the floor making sandwiches for her confused family.
I don’t know how Alice Ripley can possibly perform this role eight times a week without some emotional backlash. She is absolutely wondrous. Exhibiting every possible nuance of character written by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music). She is at once manic, compassionate, wildly blank eyed, destructive, confused, strong, fragile, longing and desperate while all the while loving. It is a phenomenal performance. You care mightily for her.
I must admit that I have been a fan ever since seeing her in Side Show. But as Diana she transcends your average musical comedy star to heights never thought believable. As a prescription pill popping, insecure person who has obviously had some huge trauma occur in her life which sparks her bi-polar problems leading to fear, anxiety, paranoia, and losing what control of her life she had – Diana does therapy (Louis Hobson does double duty as her two Doctors and is perfect in his calm and understanding portrayal) and then shock treatments to cure her – to make her forget – Alice Ripley is, and I repeat myself, wondrous. You will never forget this performance.
She is not alone. The rest of the cast is exceptional under the astute direction of Michael Grief and brilliant musical staging by Sergio Trujillo that makes full use of the three tiered set (Mark Wendland) which houses the band that plays the eclectic score by Tom Kitt – rock, jazz, waltzes and lovely music box melodies that complement the complexities of the story.
How such a potentially depressing subject can lead to such a very moving show with such a very hopeful ending just proves how talented and creative the writers of Next to Normal are. A show that has had a long journey to Broadway. Starting at the New York Musical Festival and then moving to Off-Broadway’s Second Stage, then to the regional Arena Stage in Washington D.C. and then triumphantly arriving on Broadway. It was well worth the trip. www.NextToNormal.com