Friday, August 23, 2013

Drury Lane's 'next to normal' is anything but

Susie McMonagle: dust off that Jeff award shelf.
One would never associate “next to normal” with traditional summer musical fare. Light-hearted it ain’t.  The Tony-award winning show is an uncompromising look at one family’s attempt to cope with the matriarch’s mental illness. The show also serves as an indictment of a mental health industry that at times seems more interested in grooming life-long pill-popping consumers than addressing the underlying causes of some disorders.  
Musicals such as “Gypsy” have dipped the proverbial toe in the mental health water (“Rose’s Turn” is essential a nervous breakdown set to song), but few shows have ever wrote an entire book around the topic of mental health.
As a musical, “next to normal” is less “Mama Mia!” and more “Mother Courage.” This makes the current production of the show at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace something of a major risk.
I mean no disrespect here, but the show’s gritty, sung-through, rock score and serious subject matter would seem to initially be incongruent with the typical, older suburban Drury Lane subscriber.
Whether it is the Pulitzer-prize winning script or the superbly acted, sung and directed show, the audience at the opening was incredibly receptive to the show.  
Jeff Tolle (Gabe) with McMonagle as Diana
If this production was a gamble, it has paid off in spades. In the lead role of Diana, a wife and mother trying to navigate the fine line between medication and memories, Susie McMonagle is riveting. While the show was originally a vehicle for Alice Ripley, I actually preferred McMonagle’s vocal approach to the role. True, Ripley’s voice had more of a razor’s edge than McMonagle’s that on the onset seems to be more true to the rock score, but McMonagle’s “folk-singer” style makes her Diana more approachable. If the statistics regarding mental health and bipolar disorder are to believed (and I frankly believe they are), we all know someone just like McMonagle’s Diana.
As her much put-upon yet still supportive husband Dan, Rod Thomas turns in what has to be the best performance of his career. Usually cast in comedic roles (you might have seen him in Second City’s “The People vs. Friar Laurence”), the funny man can not only emote, but also belt out the demanding score with the best of ‘em.
As son Gabe, Josh Tolle brings the needed intensity required of the role. The pacing and acting could not be better in the scenes where Gabe and Dan both engage in a tug of war in regard to Diana’s course of mental treatment. Gabe wants to flush the drugs; Dan wants to keep experimenting until they get it right. Each has their own selfish reasons for advocating their respective courses with Diana stuck in the middle.
Newcomer Callie Johnson (as daughter Natalie) has some pitch problems early on (a fate suffered by the Ms. Ripley in the original Broadway run, too). Should those persists, you’re likely to overlook them thanks to her intense portrait of a teenage girl who can’t seem to live up to perceived expectations. Her character resonated more with me than in previous productions. A second act scene between mother and daughter, set in a hospital, is exceptionally moving.  
Rounding out the cast are  Skyler Adams (hilarious as Natalie’s would-be boyfriend who just won’t quit pursuing her) and Colte Julian (in the dual role of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden). Julian finds more meat the Madden than he does in Fine, but is nonetheless engaging.
Scott Davis’ monochromatic scenic design (ok, there are black chairs so I guess it is bichromatic) perfectly captures the sterility of an average suburban home. Costume designer Sally Dolembo follows a similar pallet in the first act, slowly introducing pops of color in the second act as a way of visually capturing subtle changes to Diana’s mental state.
Under William Osetek’s direction, the pacing and flow could not be better. Actors move from fantastical scenes within Diana’s head to those grounded in reality with aplomb. “next to normal” is musical perfection; it's a theatrical moment not to be missed.

1 comment:

  1. Just saw this play... hated it. Very disappointed.