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THEATER REVIEW: “Next To Normal” proves why it won Pulitzer Prize

The three-tiered metal cage of a set almost tells the story itself: the movable parts of the Goodman house, the separation of the six members of the stage band, occasionally blinding lights and the huge poster of disembodied eyes give an impression of the psychic fragmentation that is the subject of “Next To Normal.”

As the show opens, Diana Goodman (San Diego’s own Alice Ripley), the bipolar mom of the family, has spent the night disinfecting the house and announcing to daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton) that she’s going upstairs to have sex with dad.

Now it’s morning and the family finds her sitting on the kitchen floor making seven sandwiches. It’s clearly time for another visit to the psychiatrist (Jeremy Kushnier), who in the course of this show will try everything – talk, many different pills, even electroconvulsive therapy.
The emotional roller coaster of Diana’s bipolarity – and its effects on the people in her life – are at the heart of this brave new rock opera by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, “Next To Normal” plays through Sunday at the Balboa Theatre.

Michael Greif (artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse from 1994-1999) directs.

In addition to Natalie, the family consists of husband Dan (Asa Somers) and son Gabe (Curt Hansen), with whom Diana has an unusual and troubling bond.

Natalie is a teenage piano prodigy attempting to navigate the rocky waters of adolescence while simultaneously being fearful for and embarrassed by her mother. She is so hurt by maternal inattention that she is in danger of blowing a budding relationship with classmate Henry (Preston Sadleir).

Dan, largely at a loss and missing the girl he married, just tries to hold the family – and Diana – together, though he admits he frequently isn’t sure what Diana is talking about.

The quality of the music and the enormously talented cast keep this from falling into the TV-disease-of-the-week category. Kitt’s music is modern with a classical tinge, somewhere between “Whisper House” and “Rent,” but with better lyrics (by Brian Yorkey) than either.

Ripley, the only holdover from the Broadway cast, is both a musical and dramatic marvel, with a voice that can go from huge to tiny in a trice and the acting chops to put across this demanding (and exhausting) role. Though not a native San Diegan, she did much of her early work here, moving with “The Who’s Tommy” from La Jolla Playhouse to debut on Broadway in 1993. She brought a tear to my eye with her poignant question, “What happens if the cut, the burn, the break/ was never in my brain or in my blood/ but in my soul?”

This is a fine cast all around, with excellent voices, but my favorite is Hansen’s Gabe, with an angular look and a multi-octave range that is simply astonishing.

Director Michael Greif directs this family piece with a sure hand, helped immensely by the bigger-than-life sets, lighting, music and voices. But this is a family affair, not a world-shattering problem, and I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t be just as effective on a smaller, chamber opera scale.

No matter. It works nicely as is.

The details

“Next To Normal” plays through Sunday, Jan. 23, at Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave.

Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 and 6 p.m.

For tickets, visit TicketMaster.com.

i>To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.