Take the intense drama of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," add the unique unmelody of a Stephen Sondheim-ish score, and set it in a jazzed-up version of the three-story house in “August-Osage County,” and you have a semblance of the excruciatingly moving madness of “Next to Normal,” the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown L.A.
The talented Alice Ripley brings her manic-depressive essence as Diana and her glorious voice to L.A. from Broadway, and she anchors the show as the center of the action. She is depressed and still grieving for the son she lost 16 years earlier; she is manic with the help of a gazillion drugs prescribed by her bemused doctors. “I’m screaming inside, but never make a sound,” she protests.
Orbiting around her are her husband Dan (Asa Somers), her daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton), and her dead, demonic son, Gabe (Curt Hansen). All of them, and her various doctors (played by Jeremy Kushner) are pulling her in opposite directions. Her patient husband is trying to help her get well. Her angry daughter is clamoring for her attention. And the doctors keep changing her prescriptions.
Almost all of the story is told in the lyrics of Brian Yorkey and the music of Tom Kitt, and the songs are clear and relevant as well as harrowing. “Catch Me, I’m Falling,” she sings. But as her condition deteriorates (“I miss my life,” she says), Natalie is improved by a devoted boyfriend, Henry (Preston Sadleir), who persuades her that he is “Perfect for You.”
Director Michael Greif keeps the ensemble moving well, but the real star of this production is Mark Wendland’s spectacular set. The three-story house is hollow, outlined in lights, bordered by ladder-like stairs, and holding a wonderful seven-piece band in the side wings. The actors are in continuous action in and around the house and the house itself features sliding panels and graphic displays. But the piece de resistance comes when Diana undergoes electroconvulsive therapy and the entire background becomes a massive panel of brightly colored flashing lights. The most impressive expression of a truly frightening medical procedure that you’re ever likely to see.
“Next to Normal" is a story about love. But it’s a cautionary tale, because as Dan notes, “The price of love is loss.” A profound sentiment for a remarkable production, and one you’ll think about long after the lights go out.
“Next to Normal" will continue at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., in Los Angeles, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 pm through Jan. 2, 2011. Call (213) 628-2772 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.