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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 4, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 09
5th Avenue's Next to Normal is electrifying
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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5th Avenue's Next to Normal is electrifying

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

Next to Normal
5th Avenue Theatre
Through March 13


Seattle's musical theater scene has been changed by the opening of the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of Next to Normal. Aside from being a Tony Award-winning musical, the show won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama - only one of nine musicals to ever do so - and after seeing the performance, it is easy to understand why. The musical resonates with the power of Ibsen, but local author Brian Yorkey has created a home that is an altogether different kind of doll's house, with his leading character Diana as the Nora Helmer of the modern age. Alice Ripley repeats her powerful role and delivers another staged closing door that will echo in the theater for many years to come.

The musical deals with the Goodman household. They are a modern family consisting of husband, wife, son, and daughter, all trying to live normal lives while dealing with family tragedy, but their façade is failing fast. Diana is the mother that is diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. She is seeing doctors and is on a plethora of medicines from Xanax to Lithium, but she is still straddling the chasm of reality. Her husband Dan is devotedly hanging on to the woman he fell in love with, and does everything he can to try and give his wife what she needs without understanding what exactly it is. Natalie is the 17-year-old daughter, a musical protégé who desperately tries to keep her own head above water, all the while dealing with a boyfriend, college applications, and a mother who is as eccentric as she is manic. Gabriel is a precocious boy who has a special relationship with his mother, while his father all but ignores him. When ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) is suggested for Diana's situation, the family is tested; the strains of the disorder, attempted suicide, pharmaceutical drugs, and dark secrets become the lifeboat in the maelstrom of Diana's mental illness. The musical focuses on how the family deals with its pain/recovery rather than revolving around Diana's descent.

Alice Ripley recreates her Tony Award-winning role as Diana Goodman, and she delivers the same precise performance that won her such great acclaim for this part. While her voice is strong and has a rock edge to it that fits the high-powered score very well, after three years in the role, Ms. Ripley's voice is showing some scratchiness, but her energy level seems unending and she perfectly embodies the disturbed mother, trying to stay afloat in the mire of darkness without being pulled further down. Ms. Ripley instantly draws the audience in, sometimes allowing us to sympathize with her situation, and at other times allowing us to see her struggling with the terror and fear that is her life.

Emma Hunton portrays Natalie, the daughter struggling to find her place out of her brother's shadow and to understand her mother's illness. Ms. Hunton's voice is fantastic and she completely holds her own on the stage opposite the Ripley powerhouse. The audience understands her fear, confusion, and longings, while completely sympathizing with her struggles. It is definitely the women that carry this show, and between the two leads, there isn't a moment that's not charged with strong emotion. Everything these ladies present on stage is something to take note of, and if Ms. Hunton continues the same level of performance in her future career, she will be one of the bright lights of Broadway.

The four men who take the stage all do well. Asa Somers (Dan) shows us the struggle between carefully stepping around family tragedy and the perseverance of wanting to help his wife, while not comprehending his own place in her recovery. Preston Sadleir (Henry) adds light to the darkness and becomes a pillar of support for Natalie as she navigates her way through her family's dysfunction. Jeremy Kushnier (Dr. Madden) is the psycho-pharmacologist that reaches out to help Diana and eventually leads her to try ECT. It is Curt Hansen (Gabriel) who should be the pivotal point of the male actors in the show, but unfortunately he left the audience wanting something more. The importance of his character is undisputed, but his stage presence is (ironically) more of a phantom and never fully seems to materialize to his full potential.

There is more to this musical than just the actors. Mark Wendland designed a modern home of metal stairways that creates a mood of cold detachment which matches any of the characters on stage. The lyrics (Brian Yorkey) make references to Sylvia Plath, Francis Farmer, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, all while helping the characters express their fears and feelings in ways that dialogue cannot. The music (Tom Kitt) delivers the message with as much of aa powerful rock 'n' roll score as RENT (the last musical to win the Pulitzer Prize) did when it first debuted in 1996.

Next to Normal is more than just an important musical. It does what few musicals (South Pacific, RENT, Sunday in the Park with George) have done in the past: It presents the audience with a theatrical change that cannot be ignored. Each of these propelled the musical into a new era, forcing us to examine our lives in a modern age.

Next to Normal was originally called 'Feeling Electric' when it was first workshopped at Issaquah's Village Theatre in 2002. It opened on Broadway April 15, 2009, and ran for 733 performances before closing January of this year. Nominated for 11 Tony Awards (2009), it won three - Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Actress in a Musical - before going on to win the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

To contact Eric Andrews-Katz, e-mail eric@sgn.org.

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