Friday, June 10, 2011

Soaring Above Average

(Alice Ripley in the national tour of "Next to Normal." Photo by Craig Schwartz.)
"Next to Normal," currently at PlayhouseSquare, is a musical chronicling the same suburban angst you find in any Dr. Phil show: mom's having another breakdown while daughter turns to drugs. Yet in its short life span, it has managed to snap a Tony and a Pulitzer, and it has been proclaimed a critic's darling and a paragon of theatrical virtues. Surprisingly, there is little here new to the musical stage or to subscribers of The New Yorker.

(Agnes de Mille's dream sequence is a highlight of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!")

It's all been done before. In 1943, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Laurie (in "Oklahoma!") worked out her own night sweats with dream doubles and Agnes de Mille's terpsichore. Two years before, in "Lady in the Dark," fashion magazine editor Liza Elliott sought help from a psychoanalyst for her romantic traumas. She worked them out in three tres elegant, Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin dream sequences.

(Gertrude Lawrence, center, and Danny Kaye, right, in the original 1941 production of "Lady in the Dark.")
On the literary front, Henry James dealt with disturbing ghostly aberrations, and a half century later, Edward Albee demonstrated the power of unseen children. Ibsen had already given us a heroine who slammed the door on her family. And William Finn had demonstrated, in his "In Trousers" musical trilogy, how aptly lyrics and music can italicize neurosis.

So what makes "Next to Normal" the new Gandhi of musical theater? Perhaps this is best illustrated in a rare moment of referential levity when the show's deeply troubled mother, Diana, is foraging through her medicine cabinet while the rest of the cast comments - a la "The Sound of Music" - that these are her favorite things. This is remarkable discipline and integrity in an age when musical theater - from "The Producers" to "The Book of Mormon" - thrives on a "Forbidden Broadway" mentality of spoofing other shows. We appreciate "Next to Normal" for what it embraces and what it eschews - emotional honesty rather than box-office catharsis - and for using its sophisticated soft-rock score (by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey) exclusively to tell a story rather than pander to teenage hormones.

The triumph of its realization is how it takes a clinical sob story and makes it poetic through sensitive writing, staging, lighting and casting. Set designer Mark Wendland gives us a steel and plexiglass scaffolding that puts us inside the heroine's mind and physical reality. Kevin Adams' lighting suggests everything from mental breakdowns to - in an exhilarating visual feast - electric shock therapy. Director Michael Greif and choreographer Sergio Trujillo keep the show in a fevered dream state that illuminates Diana's divergent disintegrations and recuperations.

As Diana, Alice Ripley has been justly acclaimed. On tour, her exhaustion - whether feigned or the result of performance and travel fatigue - contributes poignant intensity to the character's frayed grandeur. But Ripley doesn't dominate in an ensemble of estimable actors who appear smitten with the complexities and raw shadings of their respective characters.

Some of us value musical theater as a means of escape. Some of us value it as a truth teller. "Next to Normal" shows us that the rumor of the death of the musical is unfounded - and that it remains a protean art form that combines the best of these worlds.

"Next to Normal" runs at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, June 19. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.