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Theatre Review (LA): Next to Normal by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey at the Ahmanson

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The much-heralded rock musical Next to Normal with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey has arrived at the Ahmanson Theatre. This multi-award winning musical was developed through a series of workshops, played off Broadway, went to the Arena Stage, and finally made its Broadway debut in April of 2009. It was nominated for a slew of Tony Awards and won three: Best Original Score, Best Orchestrations, and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Alice Ripley, who is doing the tour). It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.

In Los Angeles it is being met with heaps of praise, but I for one must disagree. It’s not that the show is in any sense bad, with brilliant direction by Michael Greif, a terrific jungle gym set by Mark Wendland (the metaphor being that the mind is a jungle gym), and a very talented cast led by Ripley, Curt Hansen, Asa Sumers, Emma Hunton, and Preston Sadler. The music is catchy, sung well, and sounds exciting. My problem is with what the musical ends up saying about mental illness, bipolar disorder in particular.

Ripley’s character suffers from an extreme form of bipolar disorder where the sufferer alternates between depression and manic states, though in some cases the patient is mainly depressed or mainly manic. The dangerous periods are the times when the patient is moving from one state to the other; they become manically depressed and can sometimes go way out of whack to the extreme of suicide. In most cases, though, bipolar disorder is treatable.

Ripley’s character is seen taking a fistful of pills, leading me to think she has a whole range of disorders. The musical disparages psychiatric help, even referencing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when her doctor suggests electro-shock treatment. Nothing seems to help Ripley’s character, and the solution she takes, after wreaking havoc on her family, is to break up her marriage, abandon her child (she has two but one is a figment of her delusion), and run away to her parents. The family concludes that they are a family “next to normal” and just must learn to cope through love.

Ah, if only it were that simple. I worry that people will walk out believing that the disease is untreatable. The creators probably think the musical is a plea for tolerance but I think instead the audience leaves the theatre only reinforced in their belief that bipolar equals “nuts.”

Next to Normal plays at the Ahmanson Theatre until January 2.

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