Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace is often thought of as a place for tried-and-true Broadway musicals and comedies of yesteryear, not necessarily a venue for hard-hitting dramas about contemporary life.
But with its bracing and emotionally walloping regional premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 Broadway musical "Next to Normal," Drury Lane shows that it is just as adept at pulling out all the stops for a modern-day musical as it is with the usual roster of classics.
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"Next to Normal"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111 or drurylaneoakbrook.com
Showtimes: 1:30 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 6
Running time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes, with intermission
Tickets: $35-$49; senior and student discounts available; dinner-theater options available
Parking: Free adjacent lot and pay valet service
Rating: For mature audiences, features profanity, sexual situations and drug use
"Next to Normal" might jolt Drury Lane's loyal subscriber base with its unflinching look at an American family coping with mental illness and grief. Also potentially unsettling is the Tony Award-winning pop-rock score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, which is sometimes punctuated by four-letter words when the characters' emotions run high.
But Drury Lane audiences who stick it out will be richly rewarded by the end as each member of a troubled family stifled in its grieving and ability to express affection individually approaches a newfound clarity to move ahead.
"Next to Normal" is centered around Diana Goodman (Susie McMonagle), the suburban wife of architect Dan (Rod Thomas) and mother to overachieving teenage daughter Natalie (Callie Johnson) and son Gabe (Josh Tolle). For years, Diana has cycled through a series of pharmacologists and therapists to help her find the right prescription drug regimen to treat her diagnosed bi-polar disorder.
But things come to a head when Diana's behavior becomes more erratic (the family is shocked when one morning she starts making sandwiches on the kitchen floor). New therapist Dr. Madden (Colte Julian) presses Diana to seek out the pained roots of her mental anguish. Meanwhile, Natalie, long the dutiful good girl, starts to rebel under the influence of Henry (Skyler Adams), her new stoner boyfriend.
What makes "Next to Normal" such a wrenching success is how it allows each of the characters to honestly express his or her fears and frustrations, be it sarcastically scowling at the situation or becoming introspective with self doubt and pity. "Next to Normal" is a great domestic drama, and fine director William Osetek has assembled a top-notch cast of actors who can sink their teeth and musical chops into the juicy material.
As Diana, McMonagle has a major advantage over Alice Ripley, who originated the role in New York and performed it on tour. By the time Ripley appeared in "Next to Normal" at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre in 2011, she sounded like she was having vocal difficulties and you worried if she could get through the show.
On opening night, McMonagle was in glorious voice as her character struggled with both her self-awareness of her illness and her inability to control her mood swings and visions.
As the husband, Dan, an aged-up Thomas provided a solid foil for McMonagle's Diana, being both strongly supportive and too overprotective. Vocally, Thomas' singing in the high rock falsetto range was a bit more worrying, especially when he sounded slightly under pitch now and then.
As the show's angst-filled teenagers, Johnson as Natalie and Adams as Henry paired nicely as their characters took on an unexpected behavioral role reversal by Act II. Also just as honest was Johnson's depiction of Natalie's lifelong resentment of Gabe, memorably played by Josh Tolle as a golden boy forever prized and idealized by his mother.
Playing both Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, Colte Julian presented the right amount of professionalism and concern at trying to help Diana reach a breakthrough with her treatment.
I liked the overall look of Drury Lane's "Next to Normal" production better than the national tour, which was much more abstracted. Set designer Scott Davis' ultramodern house set is appropriately antiseptic, while Heather Gilbert's lighting design is both flashy and chilly to suit the right mood. Sound designer Ray Nardelli did an amazing job (from where I was sitting) of letting the lyrics rise above the rocking band led by music director Ben Johnson.
There's no denying that "Next to Normal" is an emotional wringer of a show that can touch some raw nerves. But that's what makes it so rewarding, and Drury Lane deserves nothing but praise for taking its audiences on the challenging journey of "Next to Normal."