'Next to Normal': Painful family story, set to music

Kristine Fraelich as Diana, bipolar, self-destructive, and hallucinating, in Arden Theatre Company's production of "Next to Normal."

Next to Normal is, for lack of a better term, a musical tragedy. With its beautifully sung score telling a painful and upsetting story, it challenges conventional expectations of what big Broadway musicals are likely to be.

The fine production at the Arden Theatre, directed by Terrence J. Nolen, begins with a huge close-up of a face projected onto the upstage wall (the many stunning and disturbing images were created by Jorge Cousineau). Eyes fly open and we are at once looking and being looked at. The spare set - everything is square or stripes - turns out to be the Goodman family's suburban home.

Diana, the mother (Kristine Fraelich), is bipolar: self-destructive, hallucinating, unable to deal with life's simplest responsibilities. The lyrics ask the central question: Who's crazy? The one who hopes - her relentlessly devoted husband, Dan (James Barry)? Or the one who can't cope? After years of psychopharmaceutical failures, the psychiatrist (Brian Hissong) suggests electric shock therapy.

Teenage daughter Natalie (Rachel Camp) is the family's collateral damage: She is invisible to her parents despite her perfect grades, her Mozart recitals, her free ride at Yale. Her brother (Robert Hager) haunts the family: seductive, charming, predatory. The only redeeming sweetness is Henry (Michael Doherty), Natalie's boyfriend.

Some of what is so exhausting about watching the show is the intensity of everyone's pain and worry and helplessness; it is almost unrelieved misery until the conclusion, when the whole cast gathers to sing an affirmation - not of the possibility of happiness but only of the courage to face the future and survive.

The music, by Tom Kitt (under Eric Ebbenga's direction), is exciting, and the lyrics, by Brian Yorkey, are sometimes clever, sometimes mournful; Yorkey's dialogue seems absolutely authentic and plausible, delivered by actors/singers who make their characters interesting as well as heartbreaking. There are no villains here, just bad luck.

Next to Normal

Through Nov. 4 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. Tickets: $36-$48. Information: 215-922-1122, or www.ardentheatre.org.