Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Writers Theatre

Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Writers Theatre

Under the direction of David Cromer, Writers Theatre presents a NEXT TO NORMAL that is raw and electric. Tom Kitt’s music and Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics have an utter immediacy to them in this production (and each note sounds great thanks to the music direction of Andra Velis Simon and the six-piece band.) It’s beautifully cast and even more beautifully delivered. Each member of the cast rises to the dual challenge of conveying the messy, deeply personal experience of emotional pain while also hitting the notes of Kitt’s complex score with precision.

As I watched NEXT TO NORMAL at Writers on Wednesday night, I was reminded of exactly how much brilliance is on display in this 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. In relaying the story of the Goodman family, whose matriarch Diana Goodman (Keely Vasquez) suffers from bipolar disorder and who’s haunted by her son, Gabe (Liam Oh), Kitt and Yorkey have put together a musical that is nothing short of genius. Though Diana’s mental illness forms the musical’s center, Kitt and Yorkey also demonstrate how challenging that experience can be for the entire family. Diana’s husband Dan (David Schlumpf) becomes consumed with finding the best way to help his wife, even though it’s apparent he feels at quite a loss as to how to accomplish that mission. The Goodmans’ Courter, Vasquez, Schlumpf, Ohsmart and driven daughter, Natalie (Kyrie Courter) feels neglected by her parents, finding solace in her piano playing and her new boyfriend, Henry (Alex Levy). The score and lyrics brilliantly succeed in capturing the ebbs and flows of Diana’s manic and depressive states, but the musical motifs also provide depth to the emotional arcs for all the characters.

The production design reflects the Goodman family’s struggle to connect. Regina Garcia’s striking and contemporary bi-level set design demonstrates that the Goodmans are certainly not hurting financially, but the split set also demonstrates the emotional distance that the family members have from one another. Rachel Anne Healy’s costume designs are polished and fashionable, which provides a lovely contrast to the characters’ messy interior lives. Keith Parham’s lighting design underscores each emotional swing in the show, drawing focus to different characters in heightened moments.

NEXT TO NORMAL powerfully demonstrates that finding treatment for mental illness is an art and not a science. The musical shows how medication can be a powerful tool in dealing with bipolar disorder, but that it is not a magic cure-all. Diana works first with Dr. Fine and then Dr. Madden (both portrayed by Gabriel Ruiz) in order to seek out methods—in the form of medication and other forms of treatment (notably, a modern-day form of electroshock therapy)—that might help her simply to survive another day of ups and downs. This intimate production acutely showcases Diana’s relationship with her doctors. As Ruiz is the only actor to perform dual roles, he also finds interesting ways to differentiate between the more clinical Dr. Fine and the more experimental Dr. Madden, who has an altogether different bedside manner. The early song “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I” demonstrates Diana’s simultaneous desire and reticence to find a way to better cope with her bipolar disorder, while Dr. Fine aims to find the right mix of medications to help her. Later, “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling” has a distinct energy as Diana navigates her early days of treatment with Dr. Madden.

Because NEXT TO NORMAL is such a challenging show to perform both emotionally and technically, it requires actors who are willing to give all their energy to their roles. Cromer has found nothing less than a superlative group of performers. Vazquez’s role as Diana is immense, as she must convincingly portray an array of the most intense emotions while also delivering vocals that use her full range. While Diana’s emotional journey is far from easy, Vazquez essays the role with vocal command and a powerful portrayal of grief and confusion. Schlumpf is excellent as her more grounded counterpart Dan; he sings beautifully and also allows us to see exactly how much the character feels trapped in a situation that often seems helpless. While all the singers are excellent, Oh delivers some of the most powerful vocals of the production as Gabe. It’s especially gratifying to see him go toe-to-toe with Schlumpf in “I Am The One,” a song in which Gabe and Dan essentially ask Diana to accept the reality of life with her husband or lean into what just might be an illusion of life with her son.

Courter has a magnetic energy as Natalie, drawing audiences to her character without Kyrie Courter, Alex Levy.jpgpulling too much focus. She delivers Natalie’s solo songs with ease, while also mining all the layers in her character’s feelings of abandonment. I’ve also always appreciated that the dynamic between Natalie and Henry adds some needed light to this dark musical, and Courter and Levy really sell that here. The pair’s catchy duet “Perfect For You” is a quieter but still powerful moment in the hands of these actors.

If you’ve not yet experienced NEXT TO NORMAL, I urge you to see Writers Theatre’s production. The musical combines an intelligent, beautiful score with one of the most magnificent and achingly real portrayals of emotional pain I’ve ever seen. NEXT TO NORMAL is not easy to watch, but it is an electrifying and sometimes cathartic jolt to the heart; Writers captures all of that energy in this production.

NEXT TO NORMAL plays through June 30 at Writers Theatre’s Alexandra and John D. Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe. Tickets are $35-$80.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

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