Sunday, September 27, 2015

'Next To Normal' Feels Quite Fine Rather Close to Home -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Next to Normal
MadKap Productions
Skokie Theatre
Thru September 27

There can be something rather illuminating about seeing the same piece of theater done across various levels of the theatrical domain. (In that vein, see my latest review of The Producers, which I recently saw for the 13th time.)

Not only can you note how different actors perform the same roles, and how directors, set designers, costumers, etc. deal with spatial and financial considerations in interpreting shows that often began in big Broadway theaters, but particularly in more spartan environments with less celebrated performers you can really get a sense of how strong the source material actually is.

I have now seen the musical Next to Normal three times in the last 5 years, initially in 2011 on its first National Tour featuring Alice Ripley reprising her Tony-winning leading role.

A much lauded--and really strong--regional production brought me to the Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2013, and with Next to Normal even closer to my home, I caught it on Friday night at the intimate Skokie Theatre.

I have always found the show to be a first-rate piece of theater, not only one of the better new works of recent years--especially among the ever-shrinking realm of truly original musicals not based on movies or other name-brand material--but possibly the best combination of drama and musical I've ever seen. (Though Next to Normal didn't win the Best Musical Tony in 2009, it earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.)

In my previous reviews--which you can access via the hyperlinks 2 & 3 paragraphs up--I recapped the
show's storyline and explained why, despite greatly liking the piece, I rated excellent productions @@@@1/2 rather than a full @@@@@ (in large part because not enough of the narratively-strong songs stand out on their own).

So I won't go into the same depth here, but wanted to extol a rather sublime rendition staged by MadKap Productions at the Skokie.

That the cast & crew retained the emotional resonance and musical merits of Next to Normal in a tight space with just a 4-piece band is all the more impressive when one notes that only 9 performances were being done (the last being today at 2pm).

Certainly, viewers had to imagine the various rooms of a house, psychiatrists' offices and hospitals rather than actually see them, a few of the actors seemed a bit young for their roles and while the singing was strong throughout, some of the vocal timbres were a bit less than Broadway caliber.

But with many audience members likely seeing this work for the first time, the almost-full house at the Skokie undoubtedly got the full essence of Next to Normal, an emotionally-wrought story of a family in which the mother suffers from bipolar disorder.

Whitney Morse, who I really liked last year in The Children's Hour in another dramatically-intense role, is outstanding here as Diana (played by Ripley on Broadway/tour and by the always superb Susie McMonagle in Oakbrook).

All of the other actors are also notably good, including Brian Zealand as Diana's husband Dan, Molly LeCaptain and Jordan Grzybowski as their kids, Natalie and Gabe, Christopher Selefski as Natalie's boyfriend Henry and Nick Shoda embodying two different psychiatrists that Diana sees.

The band was also terrific, so in this review that essentially serves only to salute fine work (coming as it does on the last day of the run), I'll also give a shout out to musical director/keyboardist Gary Powell, pianist Jeff Poindexter, guitarist Scott Sedlacak and drummer Dylan Frank, who I consistently noted for his particularly fine playing.

And while I think the emotional storyline (by Brian Yorkey) is more the greatest strength of Next to Normal--the theater went hear-a-pindrop silent upon a major revelation--than is the music, the score by Tom Kitt (with lyrics by Yorkey) serves the narrative quite well and features some standout tunes like "I Am the One" and "I'm Alive."

Unless you read this and rush right over to Lincoln Avenue in downtown Skokie, you probably won't get to this production of Next to Normal.

But even if you generally prefer plays, this is a musical well-worth seeing.

And even in far more sizable spaces with larger bands, grander scenery and much longer runs, you would be fortunate to see it enacted as good as it has been within my hometown.

Next to Normal, in the neighborhood of magnificent.

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