Next to Normal

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning family tragedy is that rarity of rarities: a Broadway show that's as good as its hype. One might walk into the theater expecting to see a Mental Illness of the Week family tearjerker, but what one gets is a richly wise and searing musical about madness and sorrow, rage and forgiveness. The show's opening ferocious quartet, "Just Another Day," presents a family in deep emotional rot. Diana (original Broadway cast member Alice Ripley, reprising her towering turn) is clearly mentally ill, and haunted by the ghost of her long-dead son, Gabe (Curt Hansen) — but Diana's enabling, desperately bewildered husband, Dan (Asa Somers), is unraveling just as fast. Meanwhile, their unhappy, emotionally neglected daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton), finding it too hard to compete against the memory of her dead brother, drifts into drugs and depression. Director Michael Greif's staging is fierce and dynamic: One might expect a story on these themes to be heavy and dreary, but the production crackles with energy and intensity. Scenic designer Mark Wendland's surreal, three-level, cagelike set at first seems like an odd fit for this family tale, but the way the characters romp all over the structure elegantly illustrates the madness in Diana's mind. Kitt and Yorkey's score may consist of memorable, fin-de-millennium rock numbers, but the music also engenders heightened realism with operatic grandeur. We're particularly lucky for the opportunity to see Ripley's reprise of her original Diana — her ferocious renditions of "I Miss the Mountains" and "You Don't Know" are likely to be the decade's most memorable show tunes. Also compelling are Hansen's sweet, oddly disturbing Gabe and Hunton's vulnerable and self-damaging Natalie. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m., Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m.; through Jan. 2. (213) 972-4400.
Sundays, 7 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 & 6:30 p.m. Starts: Nov. 28. Continues through Jan. 2, 2010

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