Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati


Next to Normal


Jessica Hendy, Mike Schwitter and Mark Hardy
The Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati opens its 2011-2012 season with a powerful and moving production of Next to Normal, which won the Pulitzer Prize (a rarity for musicals) in 2010, as well as three Tony Awards, including Best Score. The show follows the trials and tribulations of a modern suburban family as they deal with the effects of the mother's bipolar disorder. With strong performances, solid direction, and excellent design, this musical is a must-see for Cincinnati audiences.

The book by Brian Yorkey is a potent, dramatic, and stirring portrait of the damage done by mental illness and a family's attempts to cope with losses of various types. With multi-dimensional characters, real-life struggles, and unexpected plot twists, this is a tale that will challenge one's mind and heart. While the storyline does drag slightly toward the end of each act, and the ending is hopeful but somewhat unresolved, the overall effect is poignant and thought provoking.

Next to Normal has the best Broadway rock score since Rent. The songs, with lyrics by Mr. Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, skillfully blend rock and traditional musical theater sounds. The pulsating chords, edgy and touching lyrics, and emotionally raw yet catchy melodies capture the stress and landscape of the story splendidly. Whether they are the more rock-influenced tunes (the outstanding opener "Just Another Day"; "You Don't Know"; "I Am The One," which captures the husband's plea for his wife to see his attempts at supporting her; "Superboy and the Invisible Girl") or those closer to traditional Broadway fare ("I Miss The Mountains," "A Light In the Dark," "How Could I Ever Forget"), the songs are all excellent. The score has well-crafted lyrics (unlike most similarly styled Broadway songs) and multi-layered musicals motifs, and is the best musicalization of sung dialogue in some time.

The six cast members for this production each bring a high level of professionalism, polish and talent. As Diana, Jessica Hendy conveys both the angst and detachment of the mentally unstable mother with conviction, and sings the challenging score very well. Though Mark Hardy seems a bit mannered and pitchy in spots, his overall portrayal of the supportive and steadfast husband Dan is strong and emotionally touching. Mia Gentile (Natalie) provides a nicely detailed characterization of the largely ignored and frustrated daughter, and she sings confidently. As Gabe, Mike Schwitter shows impressive vocals and is appropriately menacing. Nick Cearley gives a nerdy take on the role of Henry and sings very well throughout, and Charlie Clark plays both doctor roles with theatrical flair and quality vocals.

The direction by D. Lynn Meyers is first rate, with fluid blocking, a suitable pace, and clear communication of the little things that bring depth to a show. Directorial highlights include "Doctor Rock" and "Wish I Were Here." The limited choreography by Patti James is a good fit, and Music Director Scot Wooley and his four-piece band deserve kudos for an energetic accompaniment and a perfect balance between singers and musicians.

Brian c. Mehring has provided many wonderful set and lighting designs for Ensemble Theatre, but it's hard to recall any he's done for a musical that were better than this one. The sleek, modern, and cool design concept is much more visually stunning than the original Broadway production, and the integration of various lighting effects with a two-plus story set is accomplished to great effect. The attractive costumes by Reba Senske capture the suburban setting well, and the sound by Chuck Hatcher is clear and well balanced, which isn't easy for a rock musical.

This is just the second regional mounting of Next to Normal following its Broadway run and national tour. Local audiences should feel lucky to have such a well-produced, solidly performed and directed, and expertly designed version of the show to kick off the local season of theatergoing.

Next to Normal continues through September 25, 2011. Visit www.etc.com or call (513) 421-3555 for more information.


Photo: Ryan Kurtz


Also see the current Cincinnati Area Theatre Schedule


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