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Chicago by John Olson

Next to Normal
Bank of America Theatre

Next to Normal
Alice Ripley and Curt Hansen
It may be, as Bogart told Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Unless, of course, you happen to be one of those little people, like the Goodmans of Next to Normal, who are struggling to cope with the devastating impact of mental illness in their family. The mom, Diana (Alice Ripley recreating her Tony Award-winning role), is suffering from some combination of bi-polar disorder, depression and anxiety, leaving husband Dan (Asa Somers) to manage the household and do most of the parenting. Their teenage daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton) wants a normal family life but her overextended schedule of academic and artistic pursuits may be putting her at risk for a mental disorder herself. Though the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey include witty comic relief, the family's pain is palpable. There's Dan's loss of the woman he married; Diana's loneliness as her illness causes increasing isolation from others and herself; and the alienation from parents and peers Natalie feels. If not entirely unique, this focus on the very real and not uncommon challenges of average people is surely rare in the world of musical theater—an art form usually focused on escapism when its goal is to entertain and on "big" themes of history and society when it's trying to be important.

Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt amazingly tell the story of these "ordinary people" (a comparison to the novel and film of that name is intended, and flatteringly so) with a balance that utilizes the energy and emotion of music and lyrics to convey emotion while still keeping a conversational and almost realistic rhythm that makes the story and characters real and believable. Yorkey's characters are smart and likable, clearly doing the best they can in a tough situation so we care greatly about their fate. The cast of six couldn't be more convincing.

Ripley's Diana is funny and charming, even as she's frightened to death by her advancing illness. As husband Dan, Asa Somers does amazing things with a quiet role—breaking our hearts with his pain matched by unflinching loyalty to Diana and the family. Curt Hansen is their 18-year-old son Gabe, seen by Diana as the perfect kid—smart, athletic and kind. Hansen plays Gabe as uncommonly wise for his years, charismatic and manipulative. Hunton's Natalie is similarly nuanced—cynical but not to the point of irritating or unlikeable; exasperated and embarrassed by the family's situation, but attempting to cope nonetheless. Preston Sadleir is charming as the classmate who's just a bit of a stoner and breaks through Natalie's emotional walls. Jeremy Kushnier is both winningly sympathetic and brash as the "rock star" psychiatrist who treats Diana. Kitt's score, a skillful blend of theatre music with an accessible rock sound, is sung mostly beautifully by the cast. Somers' vocals have a seemingly effortless quality that is easy on the ears while perfectly suiting the tone and pace of the conversational moments of the piece. Hansen, Hunton, Sandleir and Kushnier all have an assurance that puts across the rock-theatre music with ease. The only disappointment vocally is surprisingly Ms. Ripley, who sings with a tense throaty quality quite unlike her usual style and one which swallows some of the lyrics (which in Brian Ronan's sound design are otherwise, for a rock-influenced score, amazingly intelligible). Is this a tactic to protect a voice fatigued by months of touring or a creative choice for the character? Those who attend her solo show next Monday at Stage 773 can listen to her sing then and decide.

What keeps this from being entirely a chamber musical, and allows it to work in a big touring house like the Bank of America Theatre, is the showmanship of director Michael Greif and "musical stager" Sergio Trujillo. They make full use of Mark Wendland's impressionistic three-level set representing the Goodmans' house—actors bound among the levels with an energy that evokes Diana's manic states, physically slowing down only when the sung or spoken emotions are strong enough to maintain the intensity. The lighting design by Kevin Adams gives the production additional flash, accenting the changing emotional moods and establishing the hue of purple that is a part of the show's graphic branding.

Next to Normal's story and subject is one that might have seemed a more logical fit for another medium—a novel or independent film, perhaps. But Yorkey and Kitt's concept, so skillfully communicated through Greif's and Trujillo's staging and integrated with its striking visual design, is stunningly grounded in reality while taking us into the intangible worlds inside the characters' minds. It's an emotionally affecting piece that advances the art form and changes our expectations of the kinds of stories musical theatre can tell.

Next to Normal will play the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, through Sunday, May 8th. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com, through Ticketmaster, and by phone at 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit www.nexttonormal.com/home. p>
Photo: Craig Schwartz

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-- John Olson



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