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Ensemble offers 'next to normal' through July 1

Jun 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm
September 2011 production of 'next to normal' at Ensemble Theatre
September 2011 production of 'next to normal' at Ensemble Theatre

Not much is normal at the Goodman household. In fact, things are barely even “next to normal,” as Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey suggested in the title of their 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning Rock musical. Once upon a time musicals told slightly troubled love stories that resolved happily. That time is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of musicals, an era when shows had a lovely glow. Typified by the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, those works certainly don’t reflect contemporary reality. 

Musicals today can be about almost anything — Stephen Sondheim wrote one about presidential assassins, and Adam Guettel set to music the true story of Floyd Collins, a young man trapped in a cavern in central Kentucky. On a recent trip to Chicago, I attended a performance at Lookingglass Theatre of Eastland, a show about the capsizing of a massively overcrowded tour boat on the Chicago River that resulted in 844 deaths in 1915.

But those shows were rooted in momentous events. Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati produced next to normal last September with considerable success, selling out most of its performances in one of the show’s first productions following its Broadway success. Based on its strong audience appeal, ETC is giving its production a brief revival, onstage through July 1. It’s another chance for Cincinnati audiences to see how contemporary musicals can reflect the challenges and tragedies of everyday life. Mental illness, an unhappy marriage and neglected children are the subjects of next to normal, which focuses on the herculean tasks of getting through the day and finding the right path for life when it seems nearly impossible to go on.

Diana Goodman (played at ETC by Jessica Hendy) suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. There are treatments and medications that can contain her illness, but she’s not diligent about using them — in fact, she hates how the medication makes her feel, or rather how it prevents her from feeling. Since musicals are all about emotions, this is actually a perfect premise for a show that powerfully represents Diana’s manic moods and delusions and how they batter her family.

We see the deleterious effects of her illness on her husband Dan who tries to support Diana and keep their family together. (One of Cincinnati’s best professional actors, Bruce Cromer, is now playing this role, replacing Northern Kentucky University theater professor Mark Hardy, who had other commitments.) Their daughter Natalie struggles to get noticed. (CCM musical theater grad Mia Gentile, now working in New York City, has returned to ETC to portray this sensitive and brilliant but emotionally withdrawn teenager.) But Diana dotes on Natalie’s brother Gabe (played by Mike Schwitter, another CCM musical theater product) to the point that the overlooked sister sings a deeply affecting song about “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” The plot is even more complicated by Diana’s affliction, and the treatments she gets from several doctors (played with both hilarity and sensitivity by Charlie Clark) address her immediate problems but don’t solve much.

This might not sound like a show that people would flock to see, but the truth is that next to normal resonates with everyone — even those who aren’t part of a family afflicted by mental illness. But most families have flaws, and that’s what we connect with in next to normal. Of course, when it’s framed in a Rock musical score, we are presented with an enhanced distillation that’s far from mundane. But we can certainly relate to the ups-and-downs that many families face, how they try to overcome them and how they cope when things don’t get better, just different. 

There are numerous reasons why next to normal was among ETC’s most popular productions for its 2011-2012 season — and, I might add, among my choices for one of the best musicals on any local stage over the past year. D. Lynn Meyers, ETC’s producing artistic director, drew remarkable performances from a supremely accomplished cast. The theater’s award-winning scenic and lighting designer Brian c. Mehring gave the production both the glitz of a Rock concert with flashing ice-blue fluorescent lights and the framework for a domestic drama with some humorous and startling touches. Music director Scott Woolley and three other players rock out on Kitt’s powerful score. Don’t miss this chance for another look at a musical that’s redefining the genre. The window for this revival is very narrow, and many performances have already happened or are sold out. That’s what happens when boundaries are pushed. Maybe that’s a “new normal.”

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]