It's a tough sell: a rock musical about mental illness. One or two people losing their marbles is pretty much de rigeur in a play; where would Shakespeare, O'Neill, Williams, or Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) be without it? But composer Tom Kitt and lyricist-librettist Brian Yorkey chose to devote two hours and 20 minutes (and nearly 40 songs) to this generally unappealing subject; the result, in Next to Normal, is incongruously, sometimes agonizingly beautiful.
In its Off Broadway premiere last February, Next to Normal was exhilarating, emotional, and unstable much like its bipolar heroine, Diana (dynamo Alice Ripley, moving from rage to catatonia to glee to sorrow with remarkable ease). Perhaps to give the audience a break from Diana's depressive episodes and their effects on her family of four, the show injected comic relief (a cutesy but unnecessary breakdown in Costco) and inappropriately flashy production numbers (the Act 1 ender, ''Feeling Electric,'' made a joke out of Diana's shock-therapy treatments).
But Kitt, Yorkey, and director Michael Grief (Rent) kept making adjustments. As Dr. Fine (Louis Hobson) tells Diana when he alters her drug regimen: ''So we'll try again, and eventually we'll get it right.'' Last December, the team mounted a substantially revised Next to Normal at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage (the version that now appears at Broadway's Booth Theatre). Among the improvements: the Costco song and ''Feeling Electric'' are gone; act 1 ends with the softer, more reflective ballad, ''A Light in the Dark,'' which allows for a much-needed moment of connection between Diana and her husband, Dan (J. Robert Spencer, who's found his footing since D.C.); and Dan becomes less of a cipher with the humanizing new tune ''I've Been.''
Ripley continues to marvel. She conveys every bit of Diana's ''manic, magic days'' and ''dark, depressing nights'' as she sings in the country-tinged ''I Miss the Mountains,'' sure to become an audition anthem for angst-ridden altos everywhere. It's one of Yorkey's best lyrics (he wrote it at the Denver airport, while gazing at the Rockies); Ripley delivers it kneeling, almost precariously, at the edge of the second story of Mark Wendland's gleaming, antiseptic tri-level set.
While Next to Normal is essentially a rock musical, Kitt's music incorporates classical, folk, metal even a waltz (the giddy ''My Psychopharmacologist and I,'' which features a hilarious prescription-inspired riff on Rodgers & Hammerstein's ''My Favorite Things''). But the music is no mere mishmash. Notice how deftly the score parallels the characters: Dan's songs are steady and placid, with the occasional burst of forcefulness (''I Am the One''), while Diana's are cacophonous, layered, hard, and completely unpredictable a confrontational power-chord-driven number one minute (''Do You Know''), a whispery, music-box-style lullaby the next (''I Dreamed a Dance''). The couple's elusive teenage son, Gabe (Aaron Tveit), has insidious and creepy songs, while those of troubled 16-year-old Natalie (Jennifer Damiano) are like Diana's, but on a smaller scale she's discovering she has a few things in common with her mom, not the least of which is a charming, exceedingly patient love interest (Adam Chanler-Berat, looking far hipper in a ruffled blue tuxedo shirt than anyone has a right to).
Broadway audiences have been hungering for original musicals, so it's no surprise that Next to Normal is beginning to garner Tony buzz (Ripley is already a Best Actress favorite). And there's one award we're sure the show would win...if it existed: most tears, wadded-up tissues, and runny mascara produced by a Broadway musical. A