The one thing you should see this week: a smart, moving musical that picks apart a nuclear family

The one thing you should see this week: a smart, moving musical that picks apart a nuclear family

This week’s pick: Next to Normal at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

The fraudulent façade of the nuclear family is hardly uncharted territory—from Mad Men to the novels of Jonathan Franzen, contemporary culture is hell-bent on chipping away at illusions of happiness. As Next to Normal’s Diana (Alice Ripley) observes, “Most people who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it enough.”

The show opens on a set where the façade has, quite literally, been stripped away, revealing a stack of rooms evoking a dollhouse. As morning approaches on an ordinary day, Diana, a housewife, has run-ins with her loyal husband, neurotic daughter and cherished son. But as she becomes increasingly high-strung—and starts endlessly making sandwiches on the floor—it becomes apparent that something is amiss.

While Next to Normal doesn’t break much new ground in its treatment of grief and mental illness, it renders its subject matter with such desperation, pathos, wit and energy that it’s easy to see how it captured the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Brian Yorkey’s lyrics are smart, but Tom Kitt’s Tony-winning score is the real treasure: it disguises a work that’s operatic in scope within a nimble contemporary pop-rock format. “I Am the One,” for example, could be a pop hit, but doubles as a remarkable, layered pas de trois between Diana, her husband and son. When it’s reprised in the second act, it’s heartbreaking.

Ripley, who won a Tony for her 2009 Broadway turn in the same role, is stunning as the bipolar Diana. While some may find her idiosyncratic vowel enunciation distracting, she delivers an engrossing performance as she twitches, flails and sobs through Diana’s spiking highs and cratering lows. But the true surprise—and face to watch—is the silver-voiced Emma Hunton, whose portrayal of Diana’s neglected daughter, delicately poised between flinty and vulnerable, steals the show.

The details: To July 31. $34–$149. Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St. W., 416-644-3665,