Arena Stage's Next to Normal

The other musical here in DC that made a splash in New York is Next to Normal, now being produced at Arena Stage. This production has given the creative team (Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey) a chance to rework and improve the show. Arena has brought back much of the original team, including director Michael Greif, and stars Alice Ripley, Adam Chanler-Berat, Jennifer Damiano, and Aaron Tviet.

The result is a fresh and witty new musical, engaging and smart. The piece is one that you think about as soon as you leave the theatre, and one that you won’t soon forget.

The musical is about a seemingly all-American family, which has the typical problems of any family. Husband and wife don’t always connect, brother and sister don’t get along, teenagers feel rebellious. But the musical is about so much more than that. It centers on the housewife Diana (Alice Ripley) who struggles with depression and bipolar disorder.

The design team properly sets us in this off-kilter world. The set, by Mark Wendland, is art deco inspired and surrounded with metal scaffolding (where would the American musical be without it?). The lights by Kevin Adams give a rock concert feel to the piece. The result is a musical that is highly appealing to the eye and the ear.

Alice Ripley turns in a truly dynamite performance, bringing her powerful pipes and unique quirky charm to the role. It is the kind of part that could easily carry away the entire musical. But thanks to the writing of the piece, the direction of Michael Grief, and the other talented actors, this never happens. Besides bringing us the story of Diana’s grief and struggles, the creative team never forgets that depression has more victims than just the people who suffer on it. We see the strain it brings to Diana’s relationships with her husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer) and her daughter Natalie (Jennifer Damiano). Natalie finds comfort and release in her much more relaxed boyfriend Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat). Damiano and Chanler-Berat both bring sensitive portrayals to characters that in lesser hands could turn into teenager stereotypes. Aaron Tveit brings power and an Adonis like presence to the part of Diana’s perfect son, Gabe.

This is the modern American musical at its best, and I highly recommend it.

4 stars
Through January 18th

PS. I wish the cast had recorded/would record a cast album.


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