Theater review by Alex Huntsberger
For all its soaring rock ballads, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal is a perfect fit for David Cromer’s intensely intimate style. The musical, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, plumbs the kinds of psychic and emotional depths that Cromer, a Chicago storefront native turned accomplished Broadway director, excels at bringing to light. In this production for Writers Theatre, Cromer and a top-notch cast deliver a searing and beautifully sung portrait of a family in collapse.
Diana (Keely Vasquez) is a frustrated stay-at-home mom whose bipolar disorder leaves her family perpetually bracing itself for her next episode. But the fissures in the Goodman household run much deeper than that. As Diana begins and then discards a new drug regimen, currents of unresolved grief rise to the surface. While her husband, Dan (David Schlumpf), tries to soldier on, the couple’s overachieving daughter, Natalie (Kyrie Courter), finds respite in the company of affable stoner Henry (Alex Levy). The only family member who seems blissfully untroubled by Diana’s condition is their son, Gabe (Liam Oh), whose outward charm hints at a dark history.
The score includes several songs that burrow into your ear, and under the music direction of Andra Velis Simon, the cast members take subtle liberties with Kitt’s music to emphasize emotional beats. Vasquez and Schlumpf are outstanding as the codependent couple at the center of the story, and all of the actors—including Gabriel Ruiz in two supporting roles as Diana’s doctors—shade their characters with notable empathy. There are no villains in Yorkey’s book: only flawed, sometimes selfish people who sometimes end up at odds. Cromer and set designer Regina Garcia add an additional layer of dislocation by placing Garcia’s set at a slight angle to the audience, providing us with a slightly skewed perspective. Although Cromer won a Tony just last year for The Band’s Visit, Next to Normal serves as a superb illustration of why his talents are so ideally suited to Chicagoland stages. It’s good to have him home.
Writers Theatre. Music by Tom Kitt. Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by David Cromer. With Keely Vasquez, David Schlumpf, Kyrie Courter, Alex Levy, Liam Oh, Gabriel Ruiz. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.