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Theater Review: ‘Next to Normal’ actually extraordinary!
Posted By Jim Hagerty On May 4, 2011 @ 5:56 am In Online Exclusives | No Comments
By Bill Beard
Rarely have I had the opportunity to cover a show about which I knew almost nothing! Usually, I would have read about the Broadway production with lots of publicity and news coverage; or these days, there are so many revivals of old favorites that I am already familiar with them.
So I was especially looking forward to seeing this first national tour production of the off-Broadway-moved-successfully-to-on-Broadway musical of Next to Normal, currently playing at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre, because I was still relatively “in the dark” about it. Well, now that I’ve seen it, let me assure you that it is a fascinating production, not like anything you’ve seen before, nor likely to see again soon.
First, it’s a small cast—six actor-singers—with no chorus and no extras. Yet, those six people fill the evening with some strong and believable acting.
The design and technical aspects of the production are creative, almost bizarre, yet correctly usable and appropriate: a metal framework of a three-story house, moveable walls, stairways, adaptable to any setting; lighting that is so elaborately conceived and plentiful that it is capable of fantastic effects.
The music is diverse, ranging from gorgeous melodic moments to powerful dramatic heights, then to soft, sensitive, sometimes sensual segments, all connected by clarifying recitative. It is what I would call a “contemporary pop opera,” not really “rock,” because rock to me has come to mean ridiculously over-amplified and with lyrics that are convoluted, even when one can understand them.
But here, Tom Kitt’s score and Brian Yonkey’s book and lyrics create a somewhat different musical style, sort of a “musical storytelling,” with dialogue in appropriate vernacular form and sung in contemporary conversation style. From time to time, it seemed somewhat stilted, but more often it served well for emotional content, and for character and plot development.
Actually, the format seemed especially adaptable for the unusual subject matter, which delved deeply into the “depth and diversity within a family’s mental and psychological handling of the death of a son and brother.”
Dan and Diana’s son Gabriel died when only 8 months old; their daughter Natalie was born two years later. But Diana has never let Gabe go; he lives on in her mind so strongly that he dominates her whole being, to the point he is a fourth character, on stage at all times; and no amount of pills or therapy or even shock treatment seem to divert her from the tragic life, through which she is forcing herself and her family to rush.
The acting in this national tour cast is uniformly excellent. Emma Hunton as Natalie is an excellent singer, although Jeremy Kushnier as the psychiatrist is the only person in the cast with a truly fine traditional music theater voice. Asa Somers as Dan, the father, and Preston Sadler as Natalie’s boyfriend Henry, maintain an acceptable level in the ensemble work.
The standout performances are left to Curt Hansen, of the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, as Gabe, and of course, Alice Ripley in the dominant role of Diana.
Mr. Hansen captured my attention from the first moment the lights went up. There is no credit in the program for a choreographer; so I must assume the physicalization adapted by Hansen for this visionary character is of his own creation. He must have a strong dance training background, because he moves with such ease and agility that I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His command of the character, in fact, his command of the stage, seemed secure, hypnotic, almost mesmerizing.
Alice Ripley has made something of a life work of this role. She has played Diana since the show was workshopped in 2006-07, then off Broadway, the Arena Stage re-work, and opened the show in April 2009 at New York’s Booth Theatre. Her brilliant work won her the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. She is, indeed, marvelous in what is truly an acting tour de force. She was replaced in July 2010 by Rockford’s own Marin Mazzie, who played the role until the show closed in January 2011.
But Ripley chose to re-join the cast of this national tour and is once again becoming closely identified with the role.
I admit to having been somewhat “put off” by her singing in this performance. I assumed she was having a bad night from having strained her voice; or, perhaps, she had a cold or was exhausted from the tour. At the interval, I heard comments in the lobby and chatted with folks who just felt that she was adopting some sort of strange character vocal quality or perhaps a dialect. One couple was critical to the point of considering leaving.
I have since gone onto YouTube and re-watched her performance at the Tony Awards. Indeed, there is some sort of vocal change; one can only hope it is just temporary. But in any case, her performance is extraordinary, and the production something very special.
This is definitely one of those not-to-be-missed shows. It only plays through Sunday, May 8; so call now: 800-775-2000 or infor@BroadwayinChicago.com.
From the May 4-10, 2011 issue
Article printed from The Rock River Times: http://rockrivertimes.com
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