Sunday, September 08, 2013

Susie McMonagle and Superb Castmates Render 'Next To Normal' Next to Perfect -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Next to Normal
Drury Lane Oakbrook
Thru October 6

As firmly reiterated by a terrific local production at Drury Lane Oakbrook, coming just two years after I saw the first National Tour (which came to Chicago just months after the show closed on Broadway and featured the original star), Next to Normal is a great musical.

Despite not meeting my #1 prerequisite for great musicals.

So perhaps I should more accurately say that Next to Normal is a musical that is a great piece of theater, even if not quite a great musical in terms of its score. 

Typically, the foremost criteria for me to consider a stage musical truly superb is for it to have great music, including several songs that rise above being tuneful & narrative to the point of being hummable and memorable.

A show can be funny, touching, well-acted and terrifically choreographed--and even abundantly enjoyable in the moment--but without a number of really terrific songs, it generally can't compare to the really classic musicals. This is true, IMHO, about several musicals I've seen, even just this year, including Catch Me If You Can, Big Fish and Flashdance the Musical.

And as I opined two years ago in seeing the national tour with Alice Ripley in it, Next to Normal has a strong set of storytelling songs, but only two or three you're likely to remember the next day.

This was particularly notable Saturday afternoon in the unusually undersold Drury Lane Oakbrook, where classic musicals with oodles of songs well-known to the older crowd (that comprises a large percentage of subscribers and group attendees) are standard fare.

But while Drury Lane and its artistic director William Osetek, who helms this production, clearly took a chance in scheduling such a dark, non-normal, modern musical, I applaud them for it, as literally did everyone in the house in instantly bestowing a standing ovation at the end of Next to Normal.

For while it may be a far cry from My Fair Lady, with only "I Am the One" and "I'm Alive" being truly standout tunes, Next to Normal is one of those rare musicals that works as drama.

Written expressly for the Broadway stage (i.e. not based on a popular movie) Next to Normal tells the story of the Goodmans, a modern-day family in which the mom, Diana, has been beset by behavioral health problems for several years--and remains in crisis throughout the show.

Susie McMonagle stars as Diana, the role originated by Ripley, who ironically also starred on Broadway in Side Show, a local production of which first brought McMonagle to my attention back in 2000.

I've seen her in several musicals throughout Chicagoland since then--from playing the lead in Evita, to key roles in touring versions of Mamma Mia and Billy Elliot, to originating the lead in Snapshots, a brilliant revue of Stephen Schwartz showtunes set to a new story in a world premiere production at Northlight--and she has always been superb, in both her acting and singing.

But I don't recall McMonagle being any better than she is here, and while I remember Ripley also being outstanding--she won a Tony for the role on Broadway--my much closer vantage point in the more intimate Drury Lane Theatre (vs. the Bank of America, nee Shubert) helped me to really appreciate the nuances an actress must bring to Diana, a role I imagine it could be tempting to overact.

But the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal is far from a one-woman show, and the six-member, mostly Equity cast in Oak Brook is sensational throughout. Local veteran Rod Thomas is terrific as Diana's steadfast husband, Dan, and with the performances given by Callie Johnson and Josh Tolle as their children, one wouldn't suspect they are both recent college grads in either their first or most prominent Chicago-area roles.

Johnson is especially convincing--and well-sung--as Natalie, a 16-year-old girl dealing both with her mother's increasing instability and a first-time romance, with Henry (Skyler Adams, who is also excellent).

And for reasons I won't divulge, Tolle's take on playing the Goodman's son is even trickier, and he pulls it off quite well. 

Colte Julian rounds out the cast in dual roles of Diana's therapists, and his recent turn as Jerry Lee Lewis in The Million Dollar Quartet serves him especially well in one number here.

While the serious themes and narrative are what truly elevate Next to Normal, I don't mean to imply that the music is bad. It's actually pretty strong, just not Leonard Bernstein or Richard Rogers strong. 

So while this is a marvelous musical that takes the art form in a dramatic new direction, the Drury Lane Oakbrook rendition is likely as good a production as you'll ever again be able to see and I liked it to the point of eagerly anticipating standing to applaud at the end, the stellar-but-not-scintillating score is what prompts me to deem Next to Normal right next door to perfect, but not quite there.

(As with my review in 2011, I feel it necessary to explain why I didn't give Next to Normal a full @@@@1/2.)

Still, especially if you haven't seen NTN elsewhere, I strongly suggest you get to Oak Brook before October 6. Particularly as discounted tickets seem to be available for every performance on Goldstar.

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