Answers come hard, on stage as in life

Alice Ripley (right) plays the bipolar mother and Emma Hunton is her neglected teenage daughter in the touring production of the rock musical "Next to Normal."
Alice Ripley (right) plays the bipolar mother and Emma Hunton is her neglected teenage daughter in the touring production of the rock musical "Next to Normal." (CRAIG SCHWARTZ)
Posted: June 23, 2011

Once discussions of Next to Normal's unusual subject matter - a family's struggle with bipolar disorder - wind down, the next topic is generally Alice Ripley's voice. Ripley originated the role of mentally ill wife and mother Diana Goodman, won a 2009 Tony Award for her performance, and reprises the part in the show's national tour. And while Brian Yorkey's book and lyrics are lauded for their honesty and intensity, there's an equal amount of space in print and on blogs devoted to discussion of Ripley's vocal strengths and increasing weaknesses.

Although I missed her on Broadway, in the years she's been at this throat-ripper of a role, video and audio recordings show a clear progression from raspy undertone to raspier overtone, and her odd vowel inflections - cutting them off quickly, in favor of a waiting consonant ("Wish I were herrre"), can be alienating. However, even if she's less of a powerhouse now, she can still carry this powerhouse musical, whose rock-fueled score by Tom Kitt forgives vocal quirks if there's enough belting (though, yes, some of the show's sung-through dialogue gets muddled in the lower registers).

However, if Ripley recedes, Emma Hunton, as Natalie, the neglected 16-year-old daughter of Diana and husband Dan (Asa Somers), eagerly steps in as perhaps the cast's strongest member, and certainly its strongest singer. Asserting her character's refusal to be ignored, she soars through "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," about Natalie, her brother Gabe (Curt Hansen), and their mother's inability to see them as they are.

This theme of identities that refuse to be crushed, despite countless environmental and psychopharmacological attempts to do so, also stands center stage. Yorkey, Kitt, and director Michael Greif, along with Mark Wendland's three-story steel cage of a set, create the sensation of fighting through a cluttered mind to find some space. Ripley creates the woman who still lives somewhere inside that clutter: smart, funny, dissatisfied with her marriage, wondering where the 20-year-old version of herself disappeared to. Kevin Adams' planes of bare bulbs accented by a mood-ring glow - red for fury, cool blue for the memory loss caused by electroconvulsive therapy - echo both Diana's therapist's reassurance that ECT is only strong enough to power a 100-watt lightbulb and the show's hopeful final sentiment: "There Will Be Light."

It is to the great credit of Next to Normal's creators that Diana and her family find no easy answers. Mental illness slides like mercury, tough to capture and contain, poisoning those closest. What remains is less about the disease itself, but rather those affected by it, and in this, the Goodman family is both distinct and distinctively human.


Follow Wendy Rosenfield on Twitter at #philastage.

Through Sunday at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $20-$100. Information: 215-731-3333 or www.KimmelCenter.org/broadway

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