Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Diary of a mad housewife

What: Next to Normal
Where: The Fox Theatre
When: April 12 through 24, 2010

In musical theatre’s house are many mansions, from the blood-soaked barbershop of Sweeney Todd to the exotic palace of The King and I, so it should come as no surprise that there’s room for the conventional suburban home of a family struggling with bipolar disorder in Next to Normal. What is unexpected is how intelligently Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics and Tom Kitt’s music turn potentially sordid material into compelling dramatic comedy.

The basic premise of Next to Normal seems more suited to a cable movie of the week than a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner. Suburban mother Diana Goodman is coping poorly with a sixteen-year run of manic depression. The pills aren’t working and she’s delusional. Long-suffering husband Dan and teenage daughter Natalie are much the worse for wear and the crumbling family structure threatens Natalie’s budding romance with classmate Henry. When Dan enlists the aid of “rock star” psychiatrist Dr. Madden and Diana is compelled to confront her troubled relationship with her son Gabe, forces are unleashed that threaten to tear the family apart.

That's as much detail as I'm willing to go into here. Those of you who don't mind spoilers can see a detailed synopsis at Wikipedia.

As producer David Stone notes, “to write a musical with this subject matter was terrifying, if not insane.” And yet, through four years of endless rewrites and workshops, what once seemed madness became instead a riveting rock musical about madness and the seductive pull it can exert on the human mind. Even more amazing, the resulting show is often funny and, in its final moments, uplifting in a clear-eyed and unsentimental way.

The cast of this tour of Next to Normal is next to brilliant. Asa Somers is a warm and solid presence as the faithful Dan. As he sings in the opening number “Just Another Day”, he’s “living on a latte and a prayer”. Mr. Somers’ performance of the well-drawn character Mr. Yorkey has given him won me over at once.

Emma Hunton and Preston Sadlier are utterly credible as Natalie and Henry, trying to find love among the ruins of the Goodman family. Their story is, ultimately, the most hopeful. You really want these kids to make it work.

Jeremy Kushnier brings depth and warmth to the role of Dr. Madden, and provides contrasting dark comedy as the coldly clinical psychopharmacologist Dr. Fine (not, for you Three Stooges fans, Dr. Howard). Curt Hansen is a dynamic Gabe – almost too much so at times, occasionally drawing focus away from the protagonists at what seemed to me to be inappropriate moments. Still, it’s bravura stuff and presumably what director Michael Grief wanted.

Alice Ripley reprises her Broadway role as Diana. On opening night she was a dynamic and deeply troubled force of nature – at least until part way through the dramatic second act, when it became apparent that her voice was failing. From that point on, her vocal coping mechanisms upstaged what had been a strong performance. The role of Diana demands much of a singing actor. Ms. Ripley might want to consider giving her understudy a shot at it while she gives herself some much-deserved vocal rest.

Next to Normal plays out on Mark Wendland’s smart three-level set of black and chrome metal with translucent panels that show us the upper floors of the house, alternating with the heroine’s haunted eyes. Multiple stairs enable the actors to move rapidly between levels, making scene shifts lightning quick.

The small, amplified band is on stage on the second and third levels of the set, stage left and right. The combination of instrumental placement and first-rate sound engineering make this one of the most intelligible musicals to play the Fox in some time. It’s a joy to watch a show that you don’t know well and not feel that you’ve missed half of the lyrics.

I won’t say Next to Normal is perfect. Ms. Ripley’s vocal issues aside, I found that while the show demanded (and got) my undivided attention, there was never a time when I felt truly moved. We’ve all felt that “lump in the throat” moment when great musical theatre grabs us. I didn’t feel that here. And yet I came away from the theatre filled with admiration for everyone responsible for this remarkable work.

If you love the transformative power of musical theatre, you really must see Next to Normal. Performances continue through April 24th at the Fox in Grand Center. For more information, you may visit or call 314-534-1111.

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