Review: “Next to Normal”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
When: through Oct. 6
Tickets: $35-$49 (lunch and dinner packages $50-$74)
Phone: 630-530-0111

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

When the touring production of the Broadway hit, “Next to Normal,” came to downtown Chicago in 2011, I found Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt’s (music) Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical about a woman suffering from bipolar disorder and the effects on her family more clichéd than compelling. But the regional premiere at Drury Lane Theatre directed by William Osetek has managed to find the emotional heart of the show.

Credit goes first and perhaps foremost to Susie McMonagle, who makes Diana Goodman, the suburban housewife at the center of the piece, so warm and intensely human, we can’t help but feel her pain. She also has a superb singing voice, which enables her to navigate the twists and turns of Kitt’s folk-influenced pop-rock score and Yorkey’s sometimes banal (but occasionally witty) lyrics with complete control. On top of this, McMonagle’s timing is impeccable, and she can seamlessly shift from conveying the humor in her situation to revealing the darkest sides of her struggle.

This is essential because what little plot there is revolves around attempts to find a cure for Diana’s illness. When we first meet her in her modern multilevel home — niftily designed by Scott Davis — she’s having a manic episode, initiating quickie sex with her husband Dan (Rod Thomas), followed by making sandwiches on the floor. She’s also hallucinating, carrying on a conversation with her teenage son (Josh Tolle), but the circumstances are initially vague, deliberately, because only a single line suggests he’s dead.

Dan trundles Diana off to see Dr. Fine (Colte Julian), her psycho-pharmacologist, to have her medications adjusted, resulting in one of the funniest of the songs of the evening, a satirical litany of drugs and the drawbacks of multiple prescriptions. After she decides to stop taking her meds, with encouragement from her phantom son — whose name, Gabe, isn’t mentioned till the end of the evening — Dan takes her to Dr. Madden (Julian again), a “rock star” to his female patients, for psychoanalysis and even hypnosis. Many hallucinations and one suicide attempt later, Dr. Madden recommends electroshock therapy and, although Diana objects vehemently (and we’re right along with her here), she eventually gives in. But even this doesn’t work, and the aftermath is not what’s expected, especially by Dan, who just wants to get his family back to normal but loses it instead.

The meaning of “family” and “normal” is one of the main themes being explored, as this production makes abundantly clear. We eventually learn that Gabe actually died as an infant, probably triggering Diana’s illness, which she’s had for 16 or 17 years, and causing her to virtually ignore her brilliant daughter, Natalie (Callie Johnson), now a college-age musician but definitely damaged by life-long parental neglect. The many parallels between Diana and Natalie are explicitly drawn in song and dialogue, as the latter reluctantly discovers an alternative family in loving stoner, Henry (Skyler Adams), become a drug abuser and is terrified that she’ll end up crazy like her mother.

We also get Dan’s perspective: He’s devoted to Diana but desperately afraid of losing her, wishing they could go back to the people they were when they met. His fears are well-founded, because she’s continually being drawn away from him by the ghost of Gabe, whose seductive allure at one point has Oedipal overtones.

Aside from McMonagle’s performance, the best thing about Drury Lane’s well-acted and well-sung “Next to Normal” is that it keeps everything in balance. Even caricatures — such as Diana’s fantasy of Dr. Madden as a rock star — have a counterpoint, in this case Julian’s rather sympathetic portrayal of the doctor. The technical aspects follow suit, with Heather Gilbert’s lighting going for psychedelic effects to underscore the action, but only as necessary. And thanks to conductor/keyboardist Ben Johnson’s musical direction and the small but skilled orchestra, as well as the cast, the songs display considerable variety rather than all sounding like anthems as they did in the touring production.

All that being said, I still have reservations about “Next to Normal.” One is that, no matter how you dress it up, more than two hours of characters singing about their emotions gets to be a little tiresome. Another is that the show seems to have multiple endings, as if the authors didn’t know where to stop and wanted to give audiences something uplifting to take away. Still, I left the theater thinking that the journey had been worthwhile.