There really is no better moment for a production of "Next to Normal," the gorgeous, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 Broadway musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, than the end of August, when families confront the sudden end of the only months of the year when there feels like even half enough time to appreciate each other and face the horrific frenzy of Back to School, literally and figuratively. "Next to Normal" may be a complex and serious musical about a grieving woman confronting mental illness and whether or not to continue with her invasive treatments in the face of memory loss, but it's also an honest, truthful story about a family with problems but a whole lot of love for each other. It has the effect of making one determine to refocus on what really is important in life, which always is the best reason of all to find time to go to the theater.
Weirdly, the beautiful, artful, deeply moving show on offer in Oakbrook Terrace on Thursday night kept putting me in mind of "Meet Me in St. Louis," more typical fare at this particular suburban venue, with its long history of musicals and a deeply loyal and trusting audience. Granted, that particular, creaky tuner does not deal with electroconvulsive therapy (otherwise the trolley really would have been going bang, bang). But the Victorian family at the core of "Meet Me in St. Louis" was really not so different from the contemporary one in "Next in Normal," in that both deal with parents and teenagers and both struggle against the pull of the past and the vicissitudes of what feels like a terrifyingly modern and alienating moment.
In some ways, the gutsy young producer Kyle De Santis is counting on his patrons to make that kind of connection when they come to "Next to Normal." He has been preparing his audience; he even sent his subscribers a letter saying they were in for something different.
And, he might have added, something excellent and truly worthwhile from the director William Osetek. If "Next to Normal" was a gamble for Drury Lane, it pays off beautifully in Chicago talent. Not only does the Drury Lane production compare very favorably with Michael Greif's original Broadway production (there are aspects of Osetek's version that I like better), but it's worth noting that Drury Lane ticket prices make the show, produced here at a Broadway-quality level, accessible to a much broader audience. "Next to Normal" is well known to the theater cognoscenti as a brilliant piece of unconventional work; to my mind, its achievements are multiplied by its original story based on nothing but ideas and heart.
But it did not seep into the broader consciousness. In the wake of opening night, most of the seats at Drury Lane likely will be filled with those who have no idea what they are about to see; they will, one hopes, be in for a powerful experience, with all the surprises of the piece free to write on several hundred blank slates.
Susie McMonagle is simply exquisite in the lead role of Diana. McMonagle is a softer, more ruminative presence than the formidable original star Alice Ripley, who took such a deep dive into this part, you never knew if she was going to show up to perform (at least that was the case when the tour of "Next to Normal" rolled through Chicago). And whereas the rocker Ripley loved the acid edges of Kitt's score, McMonagle's interpretation is more of a country-legit take. Both have their advantages, but one sees oneself more easily in McMonagle, who plays opposite Rod Thomas (as husband, Dan). Thomas, doing the best work of his career here, has been stuck for far too long doing comedy around these parts; he's far better as a dramatic actor. Kitt's music shows off the qualities of a voice one rarely has heard sing with such force and truth.
Once they settle down from early pitch issues, both Callie Johnson (as daughter Natalie) and Josh Tolle (as son Gabe) work with great intensity, and Skyler Adams is simply perfect as Henry, the teenage boyfriend desperately trying to care of a girl with crippling burdens at home.
Osetek has made some interesting casting choices, especially when it comes to the ages of the actors, but you can feel his reasoning, as you can behind his counterintuitive casting of Colte Julian, a very enigmatic actor, as Diana's doctor. Julian jars at first, but he surely delivers when it matters. The production also makes its case for a simplified house (Scott Davis did the design, a tad sanitized for my tastes) and for the shrewd use of a turntable of the kind that most of us would dearly love never to step on.
This musical held its audience rapt on Thursday. Each time I've seen this piece, I've found myself anticipating the pleasure of melody and the profundity of lyrics in an unusually intense way. Most important of all, the vulnerability of everyone you are watching is, in this fine production, palpable and indisputable.
This show has a lot to say about the cost of normalcy, the elusiveness of happiness and the power of love. It belongs in the suburbs.
When: Through Oct. 6
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$49 at 630-530-0111 or drurylane.com