Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: "Next to Normal" Tour at the Ahmanson

“Next to Normal,” kicking off a North American Tour at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, has transitioned from Broadway with the impressive task to justify its Pulitzer Prize and to win audiences over with an unusual musical subject matter.

Alice Ripley (Diane)
The story focuses on Diana (Alice Ripley) who falls into a mixed reality after a period of apparent calm and in turn is now assaulted by a trial-and-error medical solution. Her husband, daughter and son all cope differently with her behavior that rides the edges between adjustment and insanity. A revelation midway in the first act adds a further layer to the family’s state of mind and existence.

Ripley who received a Tony Award for her performance brings a new found refinement to the role that on Broadway was often glorious but also manic, uneven and strange. The audience can now enjoy the performance without being distracted by it. The role is also a big task for Ripley with its almost sung through format of pop, rock and ballads. Though not showstoppers she excels in the latter with “I Missed the Mountains” and “I Dreamed a Dance.”

l to r: Curtis Hansen (Gabe), Ripley and Asa Somers (Dan)
The sung through format does seem repetitious with only a few numbers built to feel like actual songs. Also there appears to be a void of one defining and signature number for Diana left empty by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey.

Surrounding Ripley is a cast who invests themselves wholeheartedly into their roles. They stand tall, if not taller, compared to their counterparts on Broadway. Their cohesive performances add a new depth of emotion that I found lacking in New York.

Preston Sadleir & Emma Hunton
Outstanding is Emma Hunton as the daughter Natalie. Her advantage is a role that extends beyond the family in a relationship with a stoner boyfriend (Preston Sadleir). She reveals a guilt about her mother that adds fuel to their difficult relationship. Hunton delivers strong vocals and humor as necessary.

Asa Somers as Diana's husband Dan and Curt Hansen as their son Gabe bring peripheral roles forward. Somers finds the heart as the faithful rock trying to hold the remains of a family together. It’s unclear if his devotion is out of love or owing up to a promise of marriage but his final scene with Hansen completes the emotional journey of the characters.

Ripley and Jeremy Kushnier
Hansen has the more difficult role of Gabe. Performer is required to deliver solid vocals in the rock number “I’m Alive” in addition to display a quiet but definitive connection to his mother that also drives her behavior. Hansen does not disappoint with the material he is given.

Audience reaction will partly depend on their view of mental illness and the progress of Diana's therapy.  A quick succession of meetings with doctors (Jeremy Kushnier) and the levity infused in their handling of treatments do not add any insight about persons diagnosed as bi-polar.

Hunton, Hansen & Sadleir
Set design is akin to a giant dollhouse but one fabricated of steel, scaffolding, chain link and fiberglass to become home, school and hospital. Combined with harsh white lighting and dazzling red, blue and purples the story is kept a firm distance from fantasy.

The subject matter is difficult and a hard sell. But the elements here lean towards a triumph. If the show fails to bring us closer to understanding its subject illness, it perhaps may inspire us for an inspection of our own lives and our search for what we believe is the meaning of being normal or happy and the sacrifices to achieve it.

The full cast
  • Website: for more info and additional tour dates and cities.
  • Where: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
  • When:  Tue-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 1 & 6:30pm
  • Running Time: 2 hrs 20 min
  • Tickets Prices: $20 - $90
  • Opening: Nov 23, 2010
  • Closing: Jan 2, 2011
  • Cast Recording: Next to Normal (Original Broadway Cast)
  • More photos: click "read more" below


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