Chicago Theatre Review
Next to Normal – BoHo Theatre
Any discussion about Chicago can no longer refer to our toddling town as the Second City, at least not when it comes to theatrical excellence. From its small storefront venues to its bigger, flashier Equity houses, the Windy City truly has it all. And, once again, BoHo, one of Chicago’s finest storefront theatre companies, demonstrates its excellence as it closes their 2016 season with a challenging, award-winning musical. This company consistently offers the highest quality productions of plays and musicals, and their current presentation of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical drama may well be their finest to date.
Artistic Director Peter Marston Sullivan made a brave decision to include this powerful, nontraditional musical among BoHo’s current season. It’s a show that may not appeal to everyone; but for the serious theatergoer this opportunity to experience excellence really pays off. It’s said of musical theatre that characters break into song when the use of mere words simply won’t suffice. Kitt’s gorgeous rock score elevates Yorkey’s words and the feelings of its characters right up to the stars. As a result, what floods over the audience is a moving, character-driven story crafted from an ocean of raw emotions.
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. Characters coping with mental illness, drug addiction, love and loss spill out onto the tiny Theater Wit stage. The play examines how both parents and children learn to cope with everything that life throws at them, which isn’t always pretty.
Linda Fortunato has beautifully and fearlessly directed this flawless production, driven by Ellen K. Morris’ expert musical direction of a score that seamlessly flows throughout the story. Ms. Morris’ talented five-member backstage orchestra provides a musical canvas upon which this story is painted. Sarah Ross’ functional two-level set is economical, effective and modern. Employing a simple black, white and gray palette, it enables the cast to supply their own individual colors as they bring this story to life. G. “Max” Maxin’s terrific lighting design provides the necessary focus and energy. And, quietly unassuming, Rachel Lambert’s contemporary costume choices help define each character.
And the characters, around whom this play revolves, have been brought to life by six of Chicago’s finest actor/singers. In the role of Diana, Colette Todd holds back nothing, laying it all out there for everyone to see. Gifted with beauty, a natural style of acting and a sublimely powerful singing voice, despite all previous roles, this is the part that Ms. Todd was born to play. Diana’s journey can be seen all over the actress’ lovely face as well as in powerful songs like “How Could I Ever Forget?,” “You Don’t Know” and the wonderfully wistful and bittersweet, “I Miss the Mountains.” She’s ideally matched by Donterrio Johnson, whose exquisitely acted and sung Dan is a husband and father trying to balance his family’s needs while coping with his wife’s pain and mental difficulties. Johnson’s anguish and frustration, hope and devotion are so palpable. And, this Jeff Award-winner, has never sounded greater. This may well be the performance for which Donterrio Johnson will be remembered for years to come.
Gilbert Domally, recently seen in Porchlight’s “Dreamgirls” and Paramount’s “Hairspray,” is excellent as Gabe. This young actor brings heart, power and passion to a very difficult role. While onstage, Domally commands the audience’s attention; but his presence is equally persistent even when, unseen, he’s simply being referenced by other characters. Domally particularly leaves it all onstage in his rendition of “I’m Alive.” Ciera Dawn reaches a new level of excellence as teenage daughter, Natalie. Making the most of a very challenging role, Ms. Dawn proves, especially in numbers like “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” that she’s a rising star to be watched. Another talented actor, making his BoHo debut, is Bradley Atkinson in his realistic, beautifully understated portrayal of Henry, Natalie’s sweet, pot-smoking high school boyfriend. Mr. Atkinson has impressed Chicago audiences in productions at Roosevelt University, but in his first professional role Atkinson excels by providing the strong, dramatic support so necessary to this story. And BoHo ensemble member Peter Robel is excellent in the dual roles of Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden, bringing his magnificent soaring voice and professional calm to roles that, in lesser hands, might’ve become stereotypes. Mr. Robel, however, easily makes each one his own.
For audiences ready to pack away their light 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 theatrical experience that will touch their souls and make them think, they won’t find a finer production. Linda Fortunato’s directorial achievement again proves that this company deserves its place among Chicago’s finest, non-Equity theatres, with a production that should not be missed. It’s hard to imagine that another musical this season will top the multi-layered, hard-hitting excellence found in BoHo’s exquisite production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 20-October 9 by Boho Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.BoHoTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.