- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2008

Mental illness is nothing to sing about, but the powerful new American musical “Next to Normal” finds melody and meaning in melancholia.

”Next to Normal” played in Alice Ripley, who plays Diana, a wife and mother who has battled depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and unchecked grief for more years than she cares to remember.

Diana is intelligent and acutely aware - it probably would be more merciful if she were bovine - and her behavior pains and vexes her as much as it does her almost absurdly loyal husband, Dan (Jennifer Damiano). One of her most clear-eyed songs, “I Miss the Mountains,” is a soulful and stirring ballad about missing the highs and delicious extremes of mania and how banal normalcy can be.

Diana has been through therapy, mood-altering drug cocktails of every combination and experimental treatments, but nothing seems to banish permanently the cement in her brain or the voices in her head.

One of her delusions is particularly poignant: Gabe (Aaron Tveit), an idealized ghost from her past who understands her better than anyone. He´s a magical, powerful enabler. She cannot let him go, and he refuses to fade into memory.

More than a show about dysfunction, “Next to Normal” is about grief, loss and how memories are both a balm and a source of exquisite pain. It beautifully details ways in which mental illness seeps into the lives of loved ones - especially depression, which is like a film clinging to every surface.

For Dan, it is like being trapped in a half-life, waiting for things to get better. For Natalie, an aspiring musician, having a mentally ill mother means being at once protective and resentful and believing she’s undeserving of happiness.

This may all sound, well, depressing, but the show’s bristling, contemporary rock score, smart lyrics and raw energy are more invigorating than Mark Wendland’s scaffoldlike set is a warren of metal staircases and cages that suggests a comfortable suburban existence without being too literal - and this itchy, caged-in feeling is reinforced by banks of lights that rain down on the characters like high beams.

“Next to Normal” is further uplifted by impassioned performances, starting with Miss Ripley, who brings to the role of Diana a rich, resonant singing voice and dedication to creating a character who is both prickly and compelling. Her case-hardened charisma is a contrast to the sweetness and sense of loss expressed by Mr. Spencer as Dan. Miss Damiano personifies adolescent conflict and promise as Natalie, and Adam Chanler-Berat is a laid-back scene stealer as her stoner boyfriend, Henry.

At first glance, you might not want to rush to see characters belting out songs about bipolar disorder, psychopharmaceuticals and delusions, but Arena’s transcendent production, directed with unflinching honesty by Michael Greif is truly the go-to show of the winter season…..

WHAT: “Next to Normal,” music by Tom Kitt, book, lyrics by Brian Yorkey

WHERE: Arena Stage at Crystal City, 1899 S. Bell St., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday but 6 p.m. Dec. 21 with no 2 p.m. show; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. No shows Dec. 24 and 25. Noon matinees Dec. 17 and 23, Jan. 7. Through Jan. 18.

TICKETS: $10 to $55

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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