Pulitzer Prize-winning pharmacological tuner “Next to Normal” kicks off its national tour at the Ahmanson with its intensity, design scheme and Tony-honored leading lady — force of nature Alice Ripley — intact. Happily, the other five players are easily the emotional equals of their Gotham predecessors. This strange saga of a bipolar housewife’s battle to maintain her sense of self, in a world determined to medicate her into conformity at at any cost, won’t be to every taste. But it shouldn’t fail to absorb anyone interested in what’s happening in American musical theater and, not incidentally, in American families.
Under the assured hand of original helmer Michael Greif, this company gets the humor right, right out of the box. As the suburban Goodmans go about their daily routine with spirited uplift, there’s no prior awareness of the chaos in store when the delusions and deadened awareness of plucky, wry Diana (Ripley) can no longer be ignored as mere eccentricity.
Her pharmaceutical trail — so unscientifically uncertain, just as likely to crush her as to cure — will take Diana to the very edge of the snake pit, while husband Dan (Asa Somers) and kids (Emma Hunton and Curt Hansen) struggle to sort out their relationship to that which is tearing her apart.
“Next to Normal” is at its best marshalling its musical, lyrical and design resources to detail Diana’s symptoms, kaleidoscopically encompassing both explicit self-awareness (yearning ballad “I Miss the Mountains”) and theatrical metaphor: Hearing about her new “rock star” physician (grand work from Jeremy Kushnier), she imagines him literally in Mick Jagger mode, adding a guitar-crashing twist to her daily sessions.
Less persuasive is her progress through therapy, given the usual limitations of psychiatric drama in which the timeline must be telescoped and the breakthroughs exaggerated. Brian Yorkey’s book is almost reduced to an “Equus” sequel, electroshock diminishing Diana’s Dionysian impulses as it threatened to transform that kid who blinded the horses.
Cliches and oversimplification are there for the carping, if one is so inclined.
But there’s no denying the ferocity and emotional precision of the cast, beginning with husky-voiced Ripley and that unearthly, unforced vibrato seeming to emanate right from the diaphragm to bypass the larynx entirely. Casual quips masking her anguish, holding back the floodgates until — like Madam Rose at the end of “Gypsy” — she has to let ‘er rip, this is a classic musical comedy performance of unconventional musical drama fixings.
No less astonishing is Hunton’s piano prodigy daughter, paralyzed by guilt and fears over her mother’s illness while tentatively reaching out to the cheerful stoner (a totally winning Preston Sadleir) who might be, as he sings, “Perfect for You.” Vocally Hunton is unquestionably her mother’s daughter, and it’d be pleasing and unsurprising to encounter her own take on Diana a couple of decades hence.
Somers and Hansen are praiseworthy for their sterling take on more amorphous, more shadowy roles.
There’s much variety in composer Tom Kitt’s amalgam of pop, rock, folk and a little high Broadway, though some monotony ultimately results from its exclusively inhabiting a narrow middle vocal range. Doubtless that was a strategic decision to maintain tension, but it’s a pity no room could be found for deeper notes, perhaps some baritone or bass for one of Diana’s medicos hinting at the groundedness she seeks.
And Mark Wendland’s massive three-level set — metal scaffolding and chainlink simultaneously evoking modern home, schoolyard and asylum — and Kevin Adams’ typically masterful rock concert lighting overwhelm the Goodmans’ little tale as often as they elevate it.
One wonders whether, like “Sweeney Todd,” “Next to Normal” awaits an even richer life in future scaled-down, more intimate revivals, when the sources of dazzlement are the people and their problems alone.