Dexterously directed by Michael Greif, of "Rent" fame, "Next to Normal" docks at Arena on the latest leg of an unconventional trajectory. After the show opened last winter at off-Broadway's Second Stage to mixed though encouraging notices, its director, designers and most of its cast decided to stick with the project as composer Kitt and lyricist Yorkey continued to work on the piece. The musical was brought to Arena by a New York producer, David Stone -- who'd been involved in its development for several years -- with the notion of staging it in its revised form.
What was most glaringly out of sync in the earlier version was an impulse to jazz up the story with comic songs and glitzy production numbers. Initially, the pivotal character of Diana, played by Ripley, had a breakdown at a Costco, which gave the songwriters an opportunity not so much to elucidate Diana's condition as to satirize big-box stores. In a cringe-worthy moment that concluded the first act, Diana's electroshock therapy was set to music, complete with the actress strapped to a gurney and a psychiatrist in the getup of a rock star.
Those were among the elements removed. Several new songs were inserted, including "Wish I Were Here," for Diana and her bright teenage daughter, Natalie (Jennifer Damiano), who takes revenge on her mother's incapacitation by popping pills herself. (The first act now makes a softer landing, with the touching "A Light in the Dark.")
The additions and subtractions have demonstrably upgraded the equation. In taking out the more intrusive bits of authorial irony, Kitt and Yorkey give the story more room to breathe and thus to move us. You not only feel more compellingly what Diana has been going through, trying to cope with her own haywire circuitry, but also the frustration of the people around her, as they attempt to wish and coax her back to normalcy -- or, as they sing, something "next" to it.
The spine of the musical is Diana's illness itself; it has the role, in a sense, of the show's most unpredictable character. It seems that Diana, now in early middle age, has been sick for many years, having gone through phases when she's been well and when she has not. The musical follows her, husband Dan (J. Robert Spencer) and Natalie and her pot-smoking boyfriend, Henry (Adam Chanler-Berat), during one of the worst patches, as Diana seesaws through drug, talk and electroshock therapies, successes, relapses and endless questions about why nothing seems to work.