Friday, May 17, 2019

"Wish I Were Here": Directed by David Cromer, 'Next to Normal' Feels at Home at Glencoe's Writers Theatre -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Next to Normal
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru June 16

The dramatic musical Next to Normal opened on Broadway 10 years ago, in April 2009, and ran there until January 2011.

Even more that commercially, the original work--with book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt--was a critical success.

It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning three--though losing Best New Musical to Billy Elliot--and was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

I did not see Next to Normal on Broadway, but on its first national tour, which came to Chicago in 2011, Alice Ripley reprised her Tony-winning turn as Diana Goodman, a suburban mother battling mental illness. 

Prior to Wednesday night at Writers Theatre, I had also seen NTN twice more in strong local productions with lead actresses I found to be terrific.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Though certainly not the first musical to address serious themes, Next to Normal felt groundbreaking for telling a genuinely dramatic story with music, without any traditional "Broadway" song & dance numbers.

I don't think it coincidental that Fun Home, Dear Evan Hansen, Once and The Band's Visit--all of which won the Best New Musical Tony--followed in its wake.

As I've said in my previous reviews (1, 2, 3) of this show--each time, as now, bestowing @@@@1/2--I think Next to Normal is a great piece of theater, but, due in part to a collection of songs more strong than routinely spectacular, it's not quite on par with my very favorite musicals.

It had been four years since I'd last seen the show, so I was certainly glad to do so again at Writers Theatre, with a fine cast under the direction of David Cromer, a Chicagoan--actually from Skokie, like me--who won a 2018 Tony for directing The Band's Visit on Broadway. (That show also won Best New Musical.)

From having seen Cromer as an actor in A Long Day's Journey Into Night to appreciating his work as a director on The Adding Machine, Our Town--in which he also performed--and Sweet Bird of Youth, I have no shortage of reasons for admiring his talent.

But truth be told, I wasn't blown away by The Band's Visit.

And though I don't have much recollection for details, I can't say I noted obvious ways he made Next to Normal any better than it was before.

Certainly, Next to Normal's Broadway director, Michael Greif, is a terrific one, having directed Rent and 2017 Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, which I think is even better than NTN as a dramatic musical.

Still, it's cool that Cromer came home--he's worked at Writers in the past--to direct a musical that feels as if it could easily take place in Glencoe, whose affluent homes certainly may well contain families that are struggling--in one way or another--more than many might imagine.

Keely Vasquez does a fine job as Diana, in the throes of bipolar episodes that have long plagued her, as she, husband Dan (David Schlumpf) and behavioral health professionals--the always stellar Gabriel Ruiz plays two different doctors, one he imbues with "rock star" moves--try to find the right combination of treatment and meds to bring relative stability and comfort.

Opening song, "Just Another Day"--which also features the Goodmans' two children, Natalie (Kyrie Courter, whose fine voice I recalled from Company last year at Mercury Theatre) and Gabe (Liam Oh, who is remarkable, especially as just a Northwestern underclassman)--sets things up well, while I relish how "My Psychopharmacologist and I" references not only Rodgers & Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things," but, slyly, John Coltrane's jazz cover of it.

Alex Levy rounds out the cast as Natalie's fledgling high school boyfriend, Henry. Together they deliver a great rendition of "Perfect for You."

Well-sung by Vasquez, "I Miss the Mountains" poignantly sheds light on the repercussions of Diana's illness AND its treatment, while Schlumpf--joined by Vasquez and Oh--does a nice job in leading the powerful "I Am the One" (which I included in a "Broadway Rocks" Spotify playlist referenced in this blog post).

Yorkey, Kitt and Greif continue to deserve great credit for creating--from scratch, not as an adaptation--a different kind of musical, with difficult subject matter.

Not every song nor scene transfixes me, but Next to Normal is a show that anyone who loves theater--and not just musical theater--should be familiar with, and Writers, Cromer and co. do it fine justice in Glencoe.

There are characteristics in a couple of the actors I didn't find pristine, but nothing that warrants specifying, as the performances are all strong.

And while Diana's challenges are always front and center, the show isn't merely dour, as it depicts family, resilience, young love and more in rather realistic ways.

It may not be perfect, here or anywhere, but Next to Normal is close enough for this to be a strong recommendation, particularly if you've never seen it.

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