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‘Next to Normal’ soars in powerful Drury Lane staging

Susie McMonagle Rod Thomas turn searing performances “Next Normal” Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook.

Susie McMonagle and Rod Thomas turn in searing performances in “Next to Normal” at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook.

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‘NEXT TO NORMAL’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Oct. 6

Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace

Tickets: $50-$74

Info: (630) 530-0111;
drurylaneoakbrook.com

Run time: 2 hours and
30 minutes, with one
intermission

Updated: September 25, 2013 6:09AM



Intensely complex both musically and emotionally, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal” is also one of the most commercially challenging shows the Drury Lane Oak Brook Theater has attempted in decades.

It’s utterly lacking in the ear- and eye-candy of more traditional tuners — hummable, lilting melodies and tap-dancing chorines are in short supply. Instead, creators Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) use a rock score and profanity-laced dialogue to rip the veil from one of society’s last taboos.

Directed by Bill Osetek, “Next to Normal” shines an unblinking, at times literally incandescent light on mental illness. The production is deeply moving, sonically gorgeous and — in the era of juke-box musicals and repetitive revivals — truly brave.

The material is dark indeed: As the acutely suicidal Diana Goodman endures increasingly desperate forms of therapy ranging from shock treatments to psychopharmacology, her marriage founders and her gifted daughter Natalie spirals into drug abuse. But from that darkness, Kitt and Yorkey spin a story of radiant hope and resilience. As it emerges from tragedy, “Next to Normal” becomes a testimony to the triumph of the human spirit. And while that might sound like so much hoary cliche, it plays out on stage with a truth that’s undeniable.

Moreover, “Next to Normal” is freighted with biting, laugh-out-loud humor. Anchored by Susie McMonagle as Diana and a revelatory performance by Rod Thomas as Diana’s devoted, long-suffering husband Dan, the production captures the laugh-or-you’ll cry absurdities that allow people to survive heart-crushingly bleak situations. The line between tragedy and comedy is often razor-wire thin, and “Next to Normal” balances on that wire with great grace.

In McMonagle, Diana’s pain and strength are equally evident. She’s on a daunting cocktail of dubiously effective meds, and while she admits that some of them aren’t unpleasant (“Valium is my favorite color”), the cornucopia of pills exacts a heavy price. In the soaring, haunting “I Miss the Mountains,” McMonagle delivers one of the production’s vocal high points and ably pinpoints the dilemma that so many pharmacological “cures” present: Her mood has stabilized, Diana sings, but her life feels utterly numb.

As Dan, Thomas ably captures the myriad ways mental illness bleeds out from those who have it and wounds those around them. Thomas creates a memorable portrait of frustration and devotion, anger and loving patience. Equally effective is Callie Johnson as Natalie, the “invisible girl” buried in the shadow of her older brother (Josh Tolle, simultaneously a threat and a comfort to Diana in the electrifying “I’m Alive”).

“Next to Normal” is, to use the crude vernacular, a show about going crazy. But the truly crazy thing here? That would be to miss one of the Drury Lane’s best shows in years.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.



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