Eclectic, Tony-winning 'Next to Normal' touches the heart 

As the dynamic rock score ratchets up in the opening number of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Next to Normal,” and as perky blond Mom Diana ends up on the floor, frenetically making sandwiches with her appalled family looking on, we’re forewarned: This is not going to be a comedy.

“Next to Normal” is in fact anything but a normal Broadway show.

The subject matter — bipolar disorder, with all the accompanying physical and mental symptoms clearly depicted — is a tough one. And this emotionally affecting show pulls no punches in tracing the journey of one stricken woman, showing the debilitating effect her illness has on her family.

As the show proceeds through two fast-paced, highly theatrical acts that are almost entirely sung, not spoken, the story becomes ­increasingly distressing. “Next to Normal” does not provide easy answers — after all, this sort of mental illness is virtually incurable.

That’s pretty much all you’ll want to know about the plot in advance of seeing this continually surprising and disturbing show, although I will add that it ends on a hopeful note that can be seen as contrived, or as merely, and realistically, ambiguous (which is how I perceived it).

As Diana, whose condition was apparently at least partly triggered by a long-ago traumatic event, Alice Ripley — who won a Tony for the role — gives a deeply empathetic performance. Her psychosis seems to inhabit not just her mind but her body and voice; it almost hurts physically to watch her painful ­contortions.

She’s supported by an equally strong cast: an electrifying Curt Hansen in a key role; Emma Hunton as Diana’s troubled daughter, Natalie; Asa Somers as Diana’s confused and selfless husband; Preston Sadleir as Natalie’s equally selfless and persistent slacker suitor; and Jeremy Kushnier as several of Diana’s helpless doctors.

It’s a tribute not only to Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics, and to the actors, but also to director Michael Greif that there is not one character whose plight does not touch the heart.

Tom Kitt’s thrilling score is perfectly matched by Yorkey’s clever and at times powerfully yearning lyrics. The musicians are scattered throughout Mark Wendland’s three-tiered house set, with its black-and-white, pixilated walls that seem to reflect Diana’s jangled mind.

Among the current crop of edgy new musicals, “Next to Normal” rocks.

THEATER REVIEW

Next to Normal

Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 20
Tickets: $30 to $99
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Bio:
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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