Not your old-fashioned escapist musical

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By Doug Deuchler

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If you're looking for some old-school musical theater escapism in the boy-meets-girl, "feel good" fashion … keep on looking. Next to Normal is not for you. This is definitely not a flashy, upbeat Broadway musical. But if you're up for flawless performances, tight direction, and a fast-paced production that tackles a tough contemporary subject, this rock musical about mental illness is a remarkable achievement.

Next to Normal is the winner of three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama (rather rare for musicals). This intense show, presented by the Artists of Concordia Theatre from Concordia University, will play one more weekend at Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison St. — the former home of Village Players and Circle Theater. Tickets are a steal at $10. 

The lively music is by Tom Kitt with the book and witty lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Over 30 virtually back-to-back songs make up the non-stop score.

This strong production is solidly directed by Jason A. Narvy with musical direction by Josh Walker. 

If you liked Rent you will probably connect with this show's emotionally affecting modern plot. Yet aside from some of the musical arrangements, it's not really like Rent. It's about a suburban wife and mother who grapples with severe mental illness — a melange of bipolar disorder, depression, and increasing anxiety. 

All six singer-actors are assured and have fine voices. But Rachel Hamrick, playing the demanding lead role of pill-popping, semi-suicidal Diana, is amazing as the troubled protagonist. She has to be likeable and sympathetic — not easy with such a disturbed character. Hamrick is also impressive with her very difficult songs. 

Diana is numbed by drugs and jolted into calm amnesia by ECT (Electro Convulsive Treatment) as she struggles to hang on to reality and keep her disease from defining her. Her most consistent hallucination is her deceased son who died years before as an infant. Diana's an articulate suburban mom enduring an up-and-down journey into worsening mental illness, yet she's not a violent psycho, "snake pit" character. She's mired in loneliness and increasing isolation. 

If the statistics are to be believed, we all know someone just like Diana.

Phillip Heppe is strong as Diana's husband, Dan, steady and supportive, clinging to a semblance of normalcy, however fleeting. Mired in denial, Dan feels increasingly hopeless as his wife becomes a stranger. You wonder who has it worse: the woman losing her grip on reality or the guy taking care of her.

The first moments are slightly disorienting because all of the actors are college students and there is no attempt to make Diana and Dan appear middle-aged. But the performers are so strong, this approach ends up working effectively. It's surely better, in such an intimate performance space, than frumping them up simply because they're supposed to be the parents of teenagers. Realistically, this couple might only be in their late 30s.

Diana and Dan's over-achieving, overly-driven adolescent daughter, Natalie, is portrayed by Olivia Landa. She gives a very nuanced performance — cynical yet never irritating. Natalie imagines herself "the invisible girl."

Her sweetly persistent stoner boyfriend who wants to break through her barriers is Anthony Huspen. 

Jonah Schultz, prowling about, is simultaneously charming and diabolical as Diana's son.

This show is also an indictment of the mental health industry that promotes lifelong patterns of pill-popping instead of addressing underlying causes of emotional disorders. As a pair of psychiatrists, Matt Bender plays both roles with panache. Each of these good-looking doctors, ever reassuring, dispense little certainty in their questionable diagnoses.

The onstage (but unseen) rock band is composed of eight musicians: Mic Brunner, Cam McIntyre, Alexander Terry, Dylan Frank, Anthony Scandora, Clayton Bail, and Drew Wiggenhorn. They never upstage or drown out the actors.

The production has a very striking visual design. Jayme McGen's stunning, two-level, white set captures the potential bleakness and sterility of suburban living. Glass blocks and translucent sliding panels allow mood lighting to heighten the tone of key scenes. It's a very flexible industrial-looking set design.

The lighting by Becca Eifert provides an extra flash by underscoring the emotional shifts in the storyline with cool colors. 

Jenni Hinck is the assistant director and Hunter Bloom is the stage manager.

The show slightly loses focus in the second act and the seemingly triumphant finale seems unrealistically upbeat. But this rock opera extends our expectations of the kinds of stories musicals can tell. It's very effective.

Don't expect Next to Normal to be charming or uplifting. But this production is also not a bummer. It's never really disturbing or depressing. These characters remind us that people mask whatever real troubles they're tackling. The musical invites us to look past what may seem normal to see the hidden turmoil in others' outwardly humdrum lives.

Reader Comments

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Jerry McNamara from Franklin. WI  

Posted: April 9th, 2014 10:13 PM

Including Sunday, have now seen the show 12 times in the past 2+ years. This was an outstanding performance. All six actors excelled at both the acting and musical demands of their characters. As noted in the review, interpreted by the director within the tight bounds of the broadway production. Rachel Hamrick understood Diana's character as well as any actress I've scene and is a gifted musical talent as well. All six actors in the performance "got it". See this show!

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