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THEATER REVIEW Next to Normal
by Scott C. Morgan, Windy City Times
2019-05-22

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Book and Lyrics: Brian Yorkey; Music: Tom Kitt.

At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe Tickets: 847-242-6000 or WritersTheatre.org; $35-$80.Runs through: June 16

Writers Theatre in Glencoe scored an artistic coup by luring back director David Cromer to stage Next to Normal. This Pulitzer Prize and three-time Tony Award-winning 2009 musical is Cromer's first Chicago-area production since he won the 2018 Tony Award for directing The Band's Visit on Broadway.

And Cromer's powerful take on Next to Normal does not disappoint. Cromer has assembled a diverse cast who can all vocally and dramatically take on the emotional wallops of composer Tom Kitt and librettist Brian Yorkey's a nearly sung-through musical.

Next to Normal swirls around the suburban mother Diana Godman ( Keeley Vasquez ), who struggles with prescription drug regimens for her bi-polar diagnosis. Diana also manifests upsetting feelings around her eldest child, Gabe ( Liam Oh ), whom we gradually learn is not all that he seems.

Diana's architect husband, Dan ( David Schlumpf ), is extremely supportive, though also arguably overprotective and controlling. Meanwhile their high school-aged daughter, Natalie ( Kyrie Courter ), starts to rebel once she starts falling for her stoner classmate, Henry ( Alex Levy ).

Also in the mix are Diana's two doctors: the distant and calculating "psychopharmacologist" Dr. Fine and the more probing therapist Dr. Madden ( both doubled up incisively by Gabriel Ruiz ).

Under Cromer's astute direction, the whole cast delves into the anger and hurt of their characters without ever going overboard. Music director Andra Velis Simon also does great work in helping the cast to navigate this big sing of a show.

Cromer and set designer Regina Garcia ground everything more in reality rather than following the abstracted visual approach in previous Next to Normal productions. They do so by creating a collage-like unit set of stylish interiors and furniture that looks torn from the pages of Architectural Digest.

Yet the musical's often alarmingly trippy sequences come to life via Keith Parham's focused and colorful lighting design. And though some of the lyrics sound garbled or overpowered at times by the band ( always an issue with rock musicals ), the bulk of the score pulses through via the sound design of Chris LaPorte and Ray Nardelli ).

One decade on, Next to Normal feels timely as ever. And watching this great contemporary musical at Writers Theatre also feels very subversive.

The woes and wealthy income bracket of the fictional Goodman family onstage could easily mirror many a real-life family in the surrounding North Shore. So be prepared for some unsettling grief and trauma as Next to Normal allows you to peek behind one troubled family's well-kept facade.


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