Ripley, believe it or not, still rocks Normal

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Jeremey Kushnier (left), Alice Ripley (center) and Asa Somers star in the national tour of Next to Normal at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Below: Tony Award-winner Ripley sings her plaintive aria, “I Miss the Mountains.”Photos by Craig Schwartz

When I saw Next to Normal on Broadway, I was of two minds. For much of the first act, I glowered in my seat, overwhelmed by the Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey score – too many lyrics, loud music of the pop-rock-showtune mega-mix variety and super-slick storytelling and direction by Michael Greif.

But somewhere in Act 2, I got completely caught up in the story of Diana, a bipolar woman whose illness has dominated and in some ways warped her husband, Dan, and their 16-year-old daughter, Natalie. From the song “Maybe (Next to Normal),” a duet for mother and daughter, to the end of the show, I was in tears.

It was the story more than the staging that got to me, and it wasn’t so much the music but the characters and the choices they make that was ultimately so moving.

So I left with the question: why does this show have to be a musical? The Pulitzer committee didn’t seem to mind when they handed out awards.

Now having seen the show a second time courtesy of the national tour at the Curran Theatre, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, I’m wondering less about the music and more about the way the story is over-told.

Mark Wendland’s three-level set is essentially a construction site. It’s a metal framework full of rock concert lights (designed by Kevin Adams) and sliding panels that give the impression of a “normal” suburban household. We learn that Diana and Dan were both architecture students, which may also explain the construction site.

The three levels, shallow though they may be, certainly allows Greif to move his cast around in dynamic ways. Curt Hansen, who plays the enigmatic and somewhat menacing Gabe, leaps from level to level like a gymnast going for the gold. The tiers can also be read as levels of mental stability. The ground floor is the most grounded in reality. The middle level is dangerous purgatory where you can go either way. And the tippy top is “abandon sanity all ye who enter here.”

Normal 1This is an intimate story told with only six actors (one of whom plays several parts). The band (under the direction of Bryan Perri) is larger by two players. Though there’s musical staging by Sergio Trujillo, it’s not a dance show. There’s razzle-dazzle, but there doesn’t really need to be.

The creative team seemed to fear that this small-scale story could be static, so they amped it up to glitzy Broadway levels, and the result is machine like and distancing.

That’s why Alice Ripley’s central performance as Diana is so extraordinary. She won a Tony for the role because she’s the aching human center of this machine. On tour, her performance is still brave in its vulnerability, though she is relying on vocal tricks to manipulate a somewhat ragged voice. She has several vocal ticks that warp certain vowel sounds, but her acting is impeccable. She’s funny and raw and (aside from her too-cute clothes and haircut) utterly believable as a woman losing control of herself.

I actually liked Asa Somers as Dan more than J. Robert Spencer on Broadway. Dan is a tricky role to pull off because he’s the “boring” one. He’s the rock on which the rest of the family leans. But he has his own issues, as we see in the revealing reprise of “I Am the One” toward the end of the show, a duet with the limber and strong-voiced Hansen.

Emma Hunton as Natalie reveals a gorgeous voice, and though her character’s descent from nose-to-the-grindstone good girl to pill-popping clubber is only sketched in at best, she makes a strong impression. There’s nice chemistry between Hunton and Preston Sadleir as nerdy stoner Henry, a stalwart teen whose heart she has, somewhat inexplicably, captured.

In the role of Diana’s doctors – a psychopharmacologist and psychiatrist who eventually prescribes ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) – Jeremy Kushnier gets to be a rock star and a member of the (perhaps evil) medical establishment. It’s nice to see Kushnier back on stage at the Curran, where he played Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys.

With such a sturdy cast executing the material, I come back to my dilemma: why do I fight this musical so strenuously before getting sucked into it? I appreciate that Yorkey and Kitt have created such a serious musical and are aiming for depth and emotion. But as much as I enjoy some of the songs in context – “I’m Alive,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” – the score never captured my imagination as much as it blasted my brain. Like a jolt of electricity.


Next to Normal continues through Feb. 20 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $33-$99. Call or visit

Chatting with Normal’s Superboy

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Curt Hansen plays Gabe in the Broadway national touring company of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. The tour stops at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre Jan. 25 through Feb. 20. Below: Hansen dances with Tony Award-winning Normal star Alice Ripley, who plays Diana, his mother. Photo by Craig Schwartz


When people talk about the musical Next to Normal, it’s inevitably about one of two things: how they related on a deep personal level to the story of a bi-polar mom and the affect her disorder has on her family or how astonished they were by Alice Ripley’s lead performance as the struggling mom.

Ripley is extraordinary – this is the role that won her the Tony Award – and the show can be amazingly powerful, but there’s more to this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics). When Normal pulls into San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series, audiences will see there are other complicated, multi-layered characters surrounding Ripley’s Diana. One of them is Gabe, her son.

On tour, this tricky role is played by Curt Hansen, who was part of the Broadway cast as the vacation swing. When he describes Gabe, he uses words like “average” and “all-American.” But as the show’s title suggests, nothing here is exactly normal. “Gabe fits into this little family, and the more normal people think he is, the more surprised they are by the things he reveals. Sometimes you feel like Gabe is a bad guy, but I feel like Diana loves him so much, and he loves her so much. Whatever happens, it comes from a place of love first.”

Gabe, you can safely say, is a teen with issues.

“I have moments on stage where I hope that I am part of something that’s in Diana, that I help convey what’s going on in her,” Hansen explains on the phone from a tour stop in Denver. “There’s nothing simple here. We see a bipolar mom, how she struggles and how her family contributes to that struggle or how they try and cope with it in their own ways.”

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Gabe has two big numbers — “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” and the electrifying “I’m Alive” – in the challenging pop/rock Kitt-Yorkey score, so Hansen had to do more than just learn the songs. “They had to be in my body,” he says. “The songs are high and really vocally demanding. At first it’s all about technique and getting through it. Now is when it’s really fun because you live it. You enjoy what you’re singing. ‘I’m Alive’ is every musical theater kid’s dream to sing. It’s a really fun and amazing song, and I know, obviously, how lucky I am to get to do it.”

Unlike so many national tours, this one features its original Broadway star. Ripley’s star turn combines the best of in-the-moment dramatic acting and the best of contemporary musical theater. Her vibrancy on stage certainly isn’t lost on Hansen.

“It’s unreal what happens on stage every night,” he says. She is so responsive, and every show is different in a good way. I see new things every show. It blows my mind how committed she is to the character. She makes the environment on stage so alive. If you do something, you know she’ll be open to it. That’s what makes a great actor – they respond in different ways because they’re open and listening. It’s all the basic 101 stuff, but once the show starts, once the ride starts, it just gains momentum from first note to last. It’s a roller coaster every single night. I feel fortunate to be involved in a show that you can be so emotionally invested in and feel like you’re making a difference for the audience.”

Hansen, a Wisconsin native who now lives in New York with his girlfriend, caught the performing bug in a sixth grade choir class (a friend said it would be an easy A). He’s been singing since and now finds himself comforting crying moms at the stage door after Next to Normal performances. “This show really hits people. Moms definitely relate to it, but so do people who have been through tragedies and dealt with heavy stuff in their own families. When I saw the show in New York, I didn’t really have any personal ties to it, but it hit me. I was bawling my eyes out by the end. It’s one of those shows – you really take the experience for what it is.”


Next to Normal runs Jan. 25 to Feb. 20 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $30. Call 888 SHN 1799 (888 746 1799) or visit



Curt Hansen has a beautiful voice that is put to great use in Next to Normal. Earlier this year, he performed at the launch concert and sang “Open Road” by Nick Blaemire from his musical Glory Days.