Cromer Delivers A Complex and Moving NEXT TO NORMAL

Few modern day musicals are as complex in their storytelling as Tom Kitt and Brian Yorky’s brilliant original musical Next To Normal which details the devastating effect that mental illness causes not only for the person inflicted but the ancillary fallout to all those around.

The 2009 Broadway production garnered a rare Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards including Best Actress nods to Alice Ripley whose transforming performance is credited for much of the success of the show which chronicles Diana Goodman’s battle with bipolar disorder that was seemingly triggered by the death of her infant son.  The musical also delves into further unchartered waters as it questions the ethics of the medical profession and the archain methods still used to treat mental disorders.

Given these plot complexities, mounting Next To Normal can be a herculean task even for the most polished of theatre companies. In Writers Theatre’s newest production which opened on Wednesday, director David Cromer strategically navigates the story in a darker more atonal manner than prior incarnations, leaving out much of the ironic humor used by characters. Cromer’s approach to the material works best in the more dramatic aspects of the story as each of the characters face there inner demons and expertly guides his actors through this emotional minefield.  

As Diana, who now manifests her dead son Gabe as a fully grown teenager living as if the tragedy never occurred, Keely Vasquez gives a brilliantly disconnected performance that is raw with emotion.  From the opening number Vasquez creates a Diana that refuses to be victimized by the end of the show her character’s decision to be independent is both understood and unsettling.

Liam Oh’s Gabe is a force of nature and commands the stage for each scene he inhabits. Oh nicely balances the character’s own need to be loved and recognized with the darker more terrifying psychological consequences the death of a child has on parents.

We see the impact Diana’s ongoing battle with reality has on her long suffering husband Dan, played by a vocally pitch perfect David Schumpf, whose own unresolved issues with past events is as much a catalyst of family dysfunction as Diana’s illness.  

As their teenage daughter Kyrie Courtier seems to be unsure of her portrayal of Natalie as of opening night which manifested in a lack of chemistry between herself and suitor Henry, played to perfection by Alex Levy.

Much of Next To Normal’s emotional impact relies primarily on the rapid pacing infused in the Mr. Kitt’s rock score.  However, on opening night musical director/conductor Andra Velis Simon took a majority of the numbers severely under tempo affecting some performances and overall momentum of the piece.  Luckily this is an issue easily remedied and certainly not a reason to avoid this production.

Technically this is a gorgeous Next To Normal to view and hear with nicely balanced sound by Christopher M. LaPorte and Ray Nardelli; a stunning set by Regina Garcia which is perfectly lit by Keith Parham.

Next to Normal is not to be missed as it proves the importance and necessity of theatre by its awareness  Whether there is another school shooting, a teen suicide or a friend who disconnects, Next To Normal allows us to view our own societal prejudices on mental illness and begin a conversation that can change lives.  

Next To Normal runs through June 23 (extended) at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL 60022. Tickets can be purchased at writerstheatre.org, or by calling 847-242-6000.

Feature Photo: Keely Vasquez as Diana in “Next to Normal.” Credit: Michael Brosilow