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Family Meets the Challenge of Mental Illness in 'Next to Normal'

Sep. 12, 2017
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Photo credit: Mark Frohna

All families weather their share of crises, but not many are challenged like the family in Next to Normal, an award-winning musical being presented by All-In Productions. This six-actor musical takes an intimate look at how mental illness affects not just the patient, but also everyone within that person’s universe.

In this case, the mother (superbly played by Carrie Gray) suffers from bipolar disorder. She is supported by her stoic husband (Steve Pfisterer), their two children, a psychiatrist and, to some extent, the daughter’s boyfriend. Most of the show is sung, with stray bits of dialogue occasionally tossed in. All the actors have strong voices, perfect for the frequent solos and duets. Powerful voices come in handy for delivering the ensemble numbers, too, in which multiple characters sing over each other.

Next to Normal tackles a serious subject, but it does it so well that it became a surprise Broadway hit several years ago. The show, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, also won three Tony Awards and a rare Pulitzer Prize for drama. 

All-In Productions is a newer, relatively low-budget company, so one shouldn’t expect to see large-screen projections, spinning sets and other stage wizardry. Without such distractions, however, the production focuses more directly on the characters. The intentionally threadbare, two-story set may be functional, but is lit with precision by lighting designer Mike van Dreser. The color changes visually translate each scene’s theme. A small orchestra is located barely offstage behind the set. The musicians are terrific under the direction of Julie Johnson.

One of this production’s strengths is that student actors lend credibility to several teenage roles. Hailey Hentz, a UW-Milwaukee theater major, makes a powerful impression as college-age Natalie. Dressed in a flannel shirt over a decorated tee top and distressed jeans, Hentz looks as though she just wandered in from class. Her emotional range is extraordinary, and one hopes to see her in other productions soon. Natalie’s faithful boyfriend, Henry (Connor Dalzin), is another gem from UWM. As his character sings “Perfect for You,” he expresses his palpable connection with Natalie.

Natalie’s older brother, Gabe (Austin Dorman), pulls out all the stops in one of the show’s best numbers, “I’m Alive.” Although Dorman’s stage movement is somewhat limited here (no swinging on the set’s railings), he conveys a taunting, in-your-face approach that is equally effective. The young cast is impressively led by first-time director Tim Backes.

Through Sept. 16 in Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets, call 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org.

Thursday, Sep 07
Next Act Theatre

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