Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Psychosis: The Musical

By Rebecca Jessup


A rock musical, winner of Pulitzer and Tony awards, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, starring Alice Ripley, Asa Somer, Curt Handsen, Emma Hunton and Preston Sadleir; directed by Michael Greif. Through Jan. 16 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 950 13th St., Denver, CO 80204 Performances: Tues-Sat 8pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm Run time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission

“Next to Normal” is a musical that takes on challenging and difficult subjects, including the kind of family trauma and toxicity that can trigger mental illness, and the destruction that mental illness can trigger within a family, as well as the toxins that our society uses to treat mental illness. If there is a central theme here, it might be illness, or poison. These are not topics that fit easily into the format of a musical, and the cast and crew expend enormous energy in trying to make it work. The score varies from songs of humor, hope and wit to dark, rattling and discordant hard-rock numbers. The rock songs often contain a dissonance that underscores the dark and deep emotions at play in the plot. It takes courage and strength to tackle this material on stage, in this format; the effort is laudable, but not always entirely successful.

So much of the play is sung that it borders on being a rock opera, and the cast is so small that each character carries a great deal of the weight of the entire show. Every role is a challenge, and every actor brings considerable strengths. The central character, Diana Goodman, is portrayed by Alice Ripley, who won the 2009 Tony for Best Actress for her performance of this role on Broadway. She brings great emotional vigor to the role, as well physical grace, agility and strength. Diana’s loyal and long-suffering husband is played by Asa Somers, her daughter Natalie by Emma Hunton, Natalie’s boyfriend by Preston Sadleir, Diana’s psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist by Jeremy Kushnier, and her somewhat mysterious son by Curt Hansen, who moves with the speed and menace of a panther. Ripley’s singing can be problematic; she slides onto notes with an odd vibrato, and slips into distracting pronunciations that make lyrics more difficult to understand (e.g., the words “in my soul” sound like “in my sewel”).

The high-tech single set is intelligently designed, often representing the traditional floor plan of the family house, upstairs and down, but shifting to signify a doctor’s office, a mental hospital, or even the distance between the mentally ill character and her delusions.

The six musicians are on stage facing the audience, rather than in the pit, and the volume of their electrified instruments is often enough to drown out the actors’ voices. The program warns that “strobe lights are used in this production,” and the final musical number, “Let There Be Light,” is punctuated none too subtly by a mercifully brief use of the blinding lights. Since the central material of the plot is dark and uncertain of resolution, this upbeat last song feels illogical, even manipulative. “Next to Normal” has the courage to present deeply unsettling thematic material – but heaven forbid that anyone should leave the theater on a down note!

Rebecca Jessup, a Latin teacher and freelance writer, contributes regularly to and Boulder Magazine.

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