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The musical "Next to Normal," running through March 27 at Providence Performing Arts Center as part of a nationwide tour, does not explore magic, rock and roll, race politics or any of the issues dominating other recent Broadway hits. Rather, it is about something much more mysterious — the modern American family.

The show follows the trials and tribulations of the Goodman family. In the opening number, its members appear to fit neatly into traditional roles — devoted family man Dan, anxious housewife Diana, over-achieving daughter and mischievous son.

But naturally, all is not as it seems. About 10 minutes into the show, the audience gets a shock — Diana has suffered from bipolar disorder for the past 16 years.

This revelation is handled with deft understatement. It is hard to pinpoint the moment — sometime between when she declares to her daughter that she is going upstairs to have sex and when she starts frantically making sandwiches on the dining room floor — when it becomes clear Diana is not simply quirky, but mentally ill.

It is easy to see how Dan, Diana's utterly devoted husband, could fall in love with such a free-spirited, self-assured woman. Tragically, it is equally easy to see how he was never more than a quick fix for Diana's difficult situation.

Though medication initially helps her deal with her symptoms, it also leaves Diana emotionally numb and unable to respond to her husband's concern or her daughter's desperate pleas for attention. "I miss the mountains, I miss the highs and lows," she declares in song as she makes the cataclysmic decision to give up her regimen of pills.

Many aspects of "Next to Normal" — from the theatrical to the technical — are downplayed, but in such a way that does not call attention to their minimalism.

There are only six cast members — no huge backing chorus, just the central family and their hangers-on.

Rather than a traditional pit orchestra, the songs are accompanied by just six musicians, who play a variety of instruments while nestled into the set itself.

This spare orchestration occasionally leaves the audience feeling as if the songs lack depth or an emotional core. But most of the time, the singers, belting out their feelings over a single synthesizer, supply that emotion.

The set is a three-story scaffolding with staircases and walls that move to reflect the characters' needs — becoming a house, a school and a doctor's office.

In this production, the female characters steal the show. As Diana, Alice Ripley returns to the role for which she won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

It is difficult to comment on Ripley's performance in a role she plays so naturally. In fact, Tom Kitt, the show's composer, wrote the role with her in mind, according to the show's brochure.

The well-worn familiarity with which she plays the part, a role she has owned since it debuted off-Broadway in 2008, parallels her character's comfortable acceptance of her illness — at least until she gets fed up with acceptance and spirals out of control.

Emma Hunton has a number of show-stealing moments as Natalie, Diana's hard-working but frustrated daughter. Her desperate attempts to escape her home situation and the relationship she finds with utterly devoted classmate Henry mirror her mother's battles. When Hunton sings, her clear, beautiful voice masks the ugly reality she is mourning.

No such escape comes from Ripley's singing. Clearly very technically proficient, she also conveys through her voice an emotional depth that is sometimes missing from her castmates' performances. When she sings, she embodies all the more clearly her character's fragile mental state.

Though the show experienced technical difficulties in its opening night — primarily revolving around the balance between the actors' microphones and the backing music — they were not enough to distract from the overall performance. The microphone issues were resolved by the second act, which closed with the most dramatic set piece of the show.

As the cast members experienced their final moment of catharsis from the trials they had experienced, they declared, "Let there be light." A wall of light bulbs flashed behind them in true Broadway fashion. The rest was silence, darkness and roaring applause.


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