‘Next to Normal’ dives into mental illness with clarity


From L. Kyrie Courter (Natalie )Keely Vasquez (Diana) David Schlumpf (Dan) and Liam Oh (Gabe). (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
From L. Kyrie Courter (Natalie )Keely Vasquez (Diana) David Schlumpf (Dan) and Liam Oh (Gabe). (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

4 stars

“Next to Normal” brilliantly and unerringly brings to the stage what life is like in a home where a family member is mentally ill.

Penned by Brian Yorkey who also did the lyrics and with music by Tom Kitt, the show took three Tony awards in 2009. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama because even though it has highly expressive musical numbers, it is not a feel-good musical.

“Next to Normal” is a heart-wrenching drama about a husband who keeps trying to help his wife combat what has been diagnosed as bi-polar depression triggered by the death of their young son early in their marriage and about their teenage daughter who no matter how successful she is in school, can’t get the attention she deserves and craves.

The opening song, “Just another Day” sums up the family’s attempts at normalcy. But the song that should make audiences think about what it is actually like to be mentally ill is “You Don’t Know” sung by the wife, Diana Goodman, powerfully portrayed by Keely Vasquez who has appeared in several Chicago area shows. This is Vasquez’s first appearance at Writers Theatre.

What brings the Glencoe-based Writers Theatre production close to home is Regina’s Garcia’s set design of a suburban house interior  that could be in Chicago’s upscale northern suburbs and an exceptional cast who is so good they appear more like nect door neighbors than actors.

Along with Vasquez are Chicago area musicals veteran now making her Writers Theatre debut, is Kyrie Courter, a very believable daughter Natalie who feels invisible, and Liam Oh, a Northwestern University theater and music student debuting at Writers Theatre as Natalie’s brother, Gabe.

Diana’s long-suffering husband, Dan Goodman, is lovingly portrayed by David Schlumpf who has been in several Chicago area productions. Gabriel Ruiz, another veteran of Chicago theaters and also a music director, played both Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine.

Rounding out the cast is stage and film actor Alex Levy making his Writers Theatre debut as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend who wins her over singing I’m “Perfect for You.”

The person bringing it all together in what is the best production of “Next to Normal” that I’ve seen, is Tony Award Director (“the Band’s Visit -Best Musical) David Cromer. A long-time director in Chicago and internationally, Cromer had directed Writers Theatre’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” among other.

DETAILS: “Next to Normal” is at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, through June 16, 2019. Running time: 2 hrs., 15 min. with one intermission. For tickets and other information call (847) 242-6000 and visit Writers Theatre.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

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