For now, the creators of "Next to Normal," which began previews Friday -- and in another unusual step for Washington theater, is holding off on inviting the critics until mid-December -- are simply looking at the Arena run as a fresh new chapter. "Here we have this incredible opportunity to try it again," says Kitt, the show's composer. "We're just going to see what happens."
"The way in which it was received critically said, 'Keep working on this,' " Greif explains, sitting recently in the Manhattan rehearsal space where the musical was being put back on its feet before shifting to Arena's temporary home in Crystal City. "We all felt close enough to want to get at it again."
And so begins the second life of "Next to Normal." Set in the precincts of a "normal" suburb, the musical takes on, with great sensitivity, the impact of mental illness on an American family. The mother, Diana -- played by Ripley, reprising the role she originated last winter at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre -- is depicted in various phases of her disease, from an initial breakdown, through sessions with a psychiatrist, to the intimations of healing. In the original version, Act 1 concluded with the show's biggest production number, "Feeling Electric," a glitzy interlude in which Ripley's Diana was strapped to a gurney and, to the thwang of electric guitars, underwent electroshock therapy.
Along the way, we were introduced to Diana's family, her children and husband, Dan, whose stories are also told, mostly from the perspective of how they reacted to Diana's patience-trying "episodes." The point of "Next to Normal" has been the attempt at some clinical verisimilitude as well as a diagnosis of the emotional extremes to which the family is driven, of how complexly each person is affected when a loved one is afflicted.
Although the Second Stage engagement was a popular success (the show's run was extended because of ticket demand), the critical reception was mixed. There were whispers in the press of a Broadway transfer, as "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," another musical that started at Second Stage, had done. But the fact remained that for a show with such a serious topic, the notices, particularly the one in the New York Times, were not sufficiently supportive to ensure that ticket-buyers would fill a large Broadway house. As its chief critic Ben Brantley observed, "One minute you're rolling your eyes; the next, you're wiping them."