Review

At East West Players, the gut-wrenching emotion of 'Next to Normal' transcends race

East West Players wraps up its 51st season, dedicated to “the female perspective,” with a revival of “Next to Normal,” the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical about a suburban housewife’s struggle with mental illness and its effect on her family, played here by an Asian American cast.

The emotional impact of “Next to Normal,” which opened on Broadway in 2009, is hard to overstate: People tend to remember not only how they felt the first time they experienced Brian Yorkey’s unflinching book and lyrics and Tom Kitt’s haunting pop-rock score but also how messed up their faces looked afterward, all pulpy and red with tears. “Ugly crying,” as a friend of mine described his reaction. It’s not the best outing for a first date.

Veterans who have been through it before may think that they’ll handle Diana Goodman's journey through the dark forests of psychopharmacology better a second time. After all, they’ll be prepared for the gut-punch of a revelation in the first act (which I won’t spoil for you first-timers). And at least Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her portrayal of the bipolar Diana and also starred in the national tour that stopped at the Ahmanson in 2010, won’t be on the East West stage to play audience members like cheap kazoos.

Any such confidence, however, is over-optimistic. DeeDee Magno Hall’s Diana also is capable of reducing audience members — first timers or not — to blubbering wrecks with her searching fragility and voice like warm honey. Hall’s real-life husband, Clifton Hall, also is moving in the rather thankless role of Diana’s well-meaning but benighted husband, Dan. As the couple’s rebellious teenage son, Gabe, Justin W. Yu delivers an unsettling combination of charm and menace.

Then there’s the show’s breakout star, the fetching Isa Briones, as Gabe’s neglected, driven younger sister, Natalie. (Briones played the role before, last summer at the Pico Playhouse, and she has a lock on it.)

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Scott Keiji Takeda is adorable as Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry. And Randy Guiaya portrays Diana’s various psychiatrists with impeccable professionalism — except when he’s wailing like Mick Jagger in one particularly creative fantasy sequence.

The casting of Asian Americans in these roles initially played by Caucasians is notable in that it’s something most regional theaters would be unlikely to do. But this “Next to Normal” feels like a transmission from a remote future in which the ethnicity of a cast won’t even bear mention; maybe every community will get a “Next to Normal” (and an “Annie” and an “Oklahoma!” for that matter) of its own one day. The Goodmans’ race here may mean their suffering resonates with particular intensity for an Asian American audience, but that doesn’t make it less universal.

East West Players is the perfect size for this at-once intimate and thunderous show: small enough for the subtle performances, but not too small for the intense score, which can communicate Diana’s jangly emotional state with an unwelcome verisimilitude. Music director Marc Macalintal and the live backstage band find the right balance.

Hana Sooyeon Kim’s scenic design, a rudimentary-looking house with two levels and sliding panels to distinguish the rooms, is one of the few weaknesses of the production. The musical is almost entirely sung through, and many scenes don’t offer much blocking variety, tending to fall into static tableaux. Although director Nancy Keystone tries to add movement with creative staging, the performers have two places to be, upstairs or downstairs, and because climbing makes it hard to sing they stay put while singing. As a result they sometimes look trapped, more noticeably so after the intermission, when the plot starts to stagnate and the score becomes less appealingly discordant.

Critical acclaim and awards notwithstanding, “Next to Normal” isn’t a flawless show. But in terms of Aristotelian catharsis, it’s hard to top, especially in East West Players’ deeply felt rendition. Go, and don’t forget the tissues.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Next to Normal’

Where: David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center of the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and Sundays; ends June 11

Tickets: $30-$70

Information: (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

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