Chicago Theatre Review
Opulence Shimmers in Oakbrook
Next to Normal
Don’t call Chicago the Second City when talking about excellent theatre. From its small storefront venues to its flashy Broadway in Chicago productions, we have it all. And once again Drury Lane Oakbrook has demonstrated why it was the recent recipient of the Illinois Theatre Association’s Excellence in Professional Theatre Award. This Equity house consistently offers the highest quality musicals and comedies, and their current presentation of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning musical drama ranks as one of their finest productions to date.
Artistic Director Bill Osetek made a brave decision to include this powerful, nontraditional musical among Drury Lane’s season of more conventional works. It was risky to present a show that might not appeal to everyone, especially many of the theatre’s faithful season subscribers; but for the serious theatre-goer this chance to experience excellence truly pays off. It’s said of musical theatre that characters break into song when emotions become too great for mere words. Kitt’s gorgeous rock score elevates Yorkey’s words and the characters‘ feelings right up to the stars. Like Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” this might better be called a rock opera because it’s sung-through with minimal dialogue. However, what floods over the audience is a moving, character driven story crafted from raw feelings.
Without destroying the dramatic surprises hidden within this moving piece of theatre, suffice it to say that it’s a survival story about a family dealing with secrets: mental illness, drug addiction, loss and love spill out onto the stage. It examines how parents and children learn to cope with what life throws at them, which isn’t always pretty. Bill Osetek has directed a flawless production, ably supported with choreography by Tammy Mader that seamlessly flows throughout the story. Ben Johnson’s talented pit orchestra, highlighted by Tom Yang on strings, provides a musical canvas upon which this story is painted. Scott Davis‘ gorgeous two-level set is sleek and modern. Employing a black-and-white palette accented with chrome and glass, it also incorporates a revolve that enables quick auxiliary scene changes. Heather Gilbert’s terrific lighting design provides the perfect focus and color. And, unassuming as Mader’s choreography, Sally Dolembo’s contemporary costume choices artistically define each character.
And the characters, around whom this play revolves, have been brought to life by Chicago’s finest actor/singers. In the role of Diana, Susie McMonagle lays it all on the stage. Gifted with beauty, a natural acting style and a sublimely powerful singing voice that enabled her to play such versatile roles as both Mrs. Wilkinson and Mum in the National Tour of “Billy Elliot” and Donna in the tour of “Mamma Mia,” this was the role that Ms. McMonagle was born to play. Diana’s journey can be plainly seen all over the actress’ lovely face as well as in her songs like the wistful, “I Miss the Mountains.” She’s ideally matched by Rod Thomas‘ exquisitely acted and sung Dan, a man trying to balance his family’s needs while coping with his wife’s mental difficulties. Thomas’ anguish and frustration, hope and devotion are palpable. And, never sounding greater, this is the performance for which Rod Thomas will be remembered for many years to come.
Josh Tolle makes his welcome Chicago debut as Gabe, bringing power and passion to this very difficult role. Onstage (literally all over Davis’ multilevel set), Tolle perfectly commands the audience’s attention, but his presence is equally strong even when, unseen, he’s simply being referenced by other characters. Callie Johnson, a standout in Porchlight’s recent production of “Pal Joey,” reaches a new level of excellence as daughter, Natalie. Making the most of this very challenging role, Ms. Johnson proves, especially in numbers like “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” that she’s a rising star to be watched. Another talented actor making his Drury Lane debut is Skyler Adams in a realistic, beautifully understated portrayal of Henry, Natalie’s stoner boyfriend. Mr. Adams has impressed Chicago audiences as Claud in “Hair,” Motel the Tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof” and as Danny in “Grease.” But in this role Adams excels by providing the strong, dramatic support that’s so necessary to the story. And handsome Colte Julian, also making his Drury Lane debut in the dual roles of Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden, brings his magnificent soaring voice and professional calm to roles that, in lesser hands, might’ve become stereotypes. Mr. Julian, however, makes them his own.
For audiences ready to pack away their light, fluffy summer entertainments with their flip-flops and Bermuda shorts, in favor of an emotionally demanding musical, or who are simply looking for a more dramatic, grittier experience that will touch their their souls and make them think, they won’t find a finer production. Once again Bill Osetek’s suburban gem proves it deserves its place among America’s finest regional theatres with a production that shouldn’t be missed. It’s hard to imagine that any other musical this season will top the multi-layered excellence found in Oakbrook’s “Next to Normal.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 22-October 6 by the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-530-0111 or by going to www.drurylane.com.
For additional information about this and other area shows can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.