Unsettling, wonderfully staged, thought-provoking theater

Posted 1/7/11

“Next to Normal” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, a musical that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, not musical, will send audiences out of the …

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Unsettling, wonderfully staged, thought-provoking theater


“Next to Normal” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, a musical that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, not musical, will send audiences out of the theater quiet, subdued, thinking — although somewhere in the brain and body, they will also carry the fizzy feeling that comes from an evening of rock music. What just happened? Not an escape, not fun, but a clearly rewarding experience.

Many adults have an encounter with mental illness somewhere in their collective baggage, which will affect their response to this powerful piece of theater. They are along for a rocky trip with an unpredictable destination. Orchestrate that trip with a strong rock score featuring percussion, guitar riffs and harmonies and perceptions of the ill mind may expand down the road into foreign territory.

Alice Ripley, winner of the 2009 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as the troubled Diana in “Next to Normal,” reprises her remarkable performance in Denver and it’s a privilege to enjoy that star power as she and her family attempt to find some semblance of a normal life.

She, her husband and brilliant daughter struggle through 20 years of bipolar illness, with a shadowy son hovering. Her role as a wife and mother and sometime patient is far removed from June Cleaver standards and her husband and children react in different ways on different days. Several doctors offer multiple drugs and combinations thereof and eventually shock treatment to heal this moving target, with various results — wellness is not among them.

The cast, backed by musicians tucked into various levels of the striking set, manages to soar at times as they sing about feelings, frustrations and hopes. While there are no big dance production numbers, careful choreography is evident— or is it called blocking in this production? Voices are all strong and Ripley’s delivery is especially engaging.

Surprisingly, there is humor that surfaces unexpectedly. (See “catharsis” in studies of classical Greek plays).

The imaginative set, a three story cube-as-house, is constructed of steel, chain link fencing, sliding panels, a few props and thousands of light bulbs and is sometimes backed by projections of haunting eyes. Lighting design allows for flashes and strong patterns that add pizzazz, but surely reflect a disturbed mind as well. Sound is balanced and surrounding, allowing voices to carry.

Readers probably won’t see a comparable production this year in terms of innovative powerhouse theater, but there’s no escape to a Pacific island.

If you go:

Next to Normal” plays through Jan. 16 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex. Performances: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets start at $20. 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.


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