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“Next to Normal” - Ladue News: Arts & Entertainment

“Next to Normal”

National touring company

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Posted: Monday, April 18, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 10:46 pm, Tue Aug 9, 2011.

Musical:    “Next to Normal”

Group:        National touring company

Venue:        Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand

Dates:        Through April 24

Tickets:    From $22; contact 314-534-1111 or www.metrotix.com

Story:    Diana has her hands full juggling everything in her hectic life. On a typical day she calmly goes about getting the day off to a good start for her husband and their teen-age daughter and son with self-confidence and aplomb, at least as she sees it.  Dan and Diana Goodman have been married for about 20 years, just youngsters themselves when they tied the knot after Dan impregnated her.  Now, their own children are just a few years younger than they were back then, with many of the same growing pains.

    Diana’s problems are compounded, however, by the fact that she’s been diagnosed as bipolar for nearly her entire marriage.  Mental illness takes a toll on the entire family, even as daughter Natalie shyly enters into a relationship with a fellow student, Henry.  With the counsel and treatment of a pair of psychiatrists, Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, Dan and Diana try to bring some stability and sense to their troubled marriage and family, while Natalie resents her mother for what she perceives as favoritism shown to her rebellious brother.  The key to happiness for everyone seems to be Diana’s chances at recovering from her affliction.

Highlights:    Who would have thought that someone could make a successful musical that focuses on someone with a severe mental illness?  Not only did Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt do just that, but their efforts resulted in the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as three Tony Awards in 2009 for their original work that debuted off-Broadway in 2008.

Composer Kitt picked up Tonys for Best Score and Best Orchestration (with Michael Starobin), while Yorkey contributed the book and lyrics for this immensely absorbing and richly satisfying rock musical.  Stylistically reminiscent of both “Spring Awakening” and the original rock opera, “Tommy,” Kitt’s strong musical statements combine with Yorkey’s intelligent and sophisticated lyrics to shape a dazzling production that soars through a spirited first act before settling for a realistic if less fulfilling second stanza that fizzles out near its conclusion.

Other Info:    Alice Ripley won the Broadway production’s third Tony for Best Actress and reprises her role in this terrific touring rendition.  “Next to Normal” is a very demanding piece, but under Michael Grief’s focused and meticulous direction his sextet of players rises to the challenge with engaging performances and lively interpretations of several sensational songs.

    Ripley expertly inhabits the troubled persona of Diana, conveying her erratic behavior to the outside world while seemingly oblivious to the pain she is causing herself and her family.  It’s a tightrope Ripley deftly walks with great effect.

    She’s complemented by fine performances by Asa Somers as her loving, faithful and concerned husband, who patiently seeks treatment from professionals he hopes can turn their lives around even while he struggles with his own torment.  Emma Hunton shows the frustration and disappointment of Natalie toward her mother as well as the blooming romance she experiences with Henry, who is played with a soft, underscoring touch by Preston Sadlier.

Curt Hansen brings considerable energy, vibrancy and electricity to the role of impish son Gabe, particularly effective in his scenes with his mother, while Jeremy Kushnier is believable in the roles of the two psychiatrists, parts that could have been cartoonish or villainous but instead are mostly sympathetic, or hysterical in the case of Diana’s vivid imagination about her new therapist.

“Next to Normal” benefits technically from a marvelous, three-tiered set designed by Mark Wendland that brackets the actors’ performances with members of musical director Bryan Perri’s band imaginatively staged by Sergio Trujillo in corner rooms of the Goodman house.  Pianist Perri and assistant conductor Rick Bertone lead a tight combo that includes guitarist Craig Magnano, Michael Pearce on bass, drummer/percussionist Shannon Ford and local musicians Marcia Mann on cello and violinist Alison Rolff.  Orchestrations by Kitt and Michael Starobin are intriguing and ingenious throughout and brought to rich realization by the savvy musicians.

Wendland’s cubical approach is highlighted also by some spectacular lighting effects by designer Kevin Adams, sound design by Brian Ronan and costumes by Jeff Mahshie that are appropriate for the various characters.  “Next to Normal” is a stunning theatrical achievement that resonates both during its performance and long afterward, an exhilarating experiment you won’t soon forget.

Rating:        A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

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