At the end of "Next to Normal" at the Ordway Center, I felt the same way I did when I first saw composer Tom Kitt's and lyricist Brian Yorkey's brave musical in New York a couple of years ago: like I had run into a prizefighter's punch.
Mind you, the experience left no visible marks. And the show was far more pleasing than getting into the ring with, say, Manny Pacquiao.
After I had scraped myself up and stumbled out of the theater at Tuesday's opening, I was glad to have seen stars.
"Normal" deals with serious issues that have not been dealt with like this in a musical before: mental illness, chronic grief, attempted suicide and other things that we don't like to air in public. Like "Sweeney Todd" -- another musical with unlikely subject matter -- "Normal" is riveting for its courage and for the deftness and wit with which it handles its sobering subject.
Diana (Alice Ripley) seems to be off her meds again. She sits up worrying half the night, and makes sandwiches on the kitchen floor. She brings out a birthday cake when no one is celebrating a birthday. She is barely present for her teenage daughter, Natalie (Meghann Fahy), who needs a mother's guidance, or her husband, Dan (Asa Somers), with whom she has rote sex. Her son Gabe (Curt Hansen) floats in and out of the scene.
As Diana worsens, the family tries a regimen of drugs and electroshock therapy to pull her out of her long night.
Directed seamlessly by Michael Greif, "Normal" is a slick, smart production that unfolds on Max Wendland's "Rent"-like scenic design. The three-story set, made up of scaffolding and sliding panels starkly lit by Kevin Adams, reinforces the theme of imprisonment.
Ripley won a Tony for subsuming herself in Diana. At the Ordway, she sank into the core of her sick character, her heavy singing full of shadows and grief (and often sounding like it belongs in its own show). Ripley reportedly has been feeling ill. At the Ordway, she exhibited some vocal strain, even if it fit her checked-out character.
The company is first-rate. Somers is sweet as her husband. As Natalie, Fahy has both the teen sneer and wisdom beyond her years down pat. She and her boyfriend (Preston Sadleir) seem a bit old for teens, though they pull it off through their mannerisms and talent.
Clad in jeans and T-shirt, Hansen plays the problematic Gabe with ferocity, haunting the stage and the lives of the surviving family. He's sometimes a ghostly presence, sometimes a snake.
The production has moments of levity, including a rock-star doctor who transforms into a rock star. Those moments help make "Next to Normal" so riveting.