You have to hand it to D.C.'s theater community. They never miss a chance to surprise or, perhaps more accurately, to shock.
Arena Stage has decided to usher in the New Year with Next to Normal, a new musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey that takes on memory, depression and that old musical theater chestnut, electroconvulsive therapy.
With a well-paced, inventive songbook, and a sure-footed cast Next to Normal's story traces the slow disintegration of a family whose desire for a quiet, ''normal'' existence is constantly undermined by the tangible presence of chronic mental illness.
Next to Normal bears the rough edges of a work-in-progress. Its overall execution and sensitivity is marred by a habit of adding one more story element, one more surface embellishment. When the inspirational heart of a show beats as strongly as this one it deserves proper spotlight, free from distractions. Less here would truly be more.
Alice Ripley takes on Diana, the mother at the center of the musical, with a tremendous voice and a bittersweet sense of humor. She is well joined on stage by J. Robert Spencer as her husband and Aaron Tveit as their son Gabe. Tveit is a muscular performer who hits the stage with phenomenal energy and raw charisma.
Next to Normal gives one hope for the American musical. It is intelligent, thought-provoking and gamely explores fresh and unexpected territory for material. Credit must be given to Arena for continuing to recognize the importance of new voices.