By Barry Reszel
BoHo Theatre pretty much lays it all out there.
Its mission, vision and values call for a community of artists and patrons to make thoughtful, well-examined, caring relationships its highest life priority as all its members, together, examine truth, beauty, freedom and love via innovative storytelling.
No little pressure there on Peter Marston Sullivan, BoHo’s artistic director, who is among theatrical decision makers rightfully being called on to ensure “authentically racially diverse” shows up on their companies’ value statements, too.
By means of his other title, associate artistic director at Marriott Theatre, Sullivan has had a front row seat to the poignant racial/cultural casting discussion in Chicagoland this year. (Click here for an article with insight to the issue vis-à-vis Marriott’s Evita.) It’s a discussion that continues (and has been heightened) with Porchlight Music Theatre’s upcoming In the Heights production that will be happening literally next door to BoHo’s fall presentation of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning rock drama, Next to Normal. (A good summary of the Porchlight discussion may be read here.)
All of this is background to Director Linda Fortunato‘s simultaneous realization of BoHo’s mission and contribution to the community’s racially-charged dialogue. She accomplishes both through her vision of Next to Normal‘s Goodman family as a mixed-race marriage with multi-racial children which, therefore, brings about an evenly multi-racial cast.
While that’s important (and one day soon, so commonplace as to be unworthy of mention in media reviews), what’s most important of all is that the talent and chemistry among Fortunato’s cast of six actors deserve to catapult each of them to additional leading roles and this production to the tables where awards discussions take place.
In itself, Next to Normal is a heartbreaking trek through one family’s experiences with mental illness, specifically bipolar I with psychotic features (using current terms). It’s at the same time dramatic, frightening and incredibly sad. Thankfully, Kitt’s gorgeous rock score and Yorkey’s eloquent lyrics permit the audience to appreciate the family’s survival in the midst of mental chaos and victimization of an ill mother and her caretaking family. (A full synopsis of the plot, production history and interesting additional reading is here.)
Together, Sarah Ross’ modular, monochromatic, multi-level set with numerous entrance points; Ellen K. Morris’ expert musical direction of her talented five-member orchestra backstage; G. “Max” Maxin IV’s terrific lighting design; and Rachel Lambert‘s costumes (earth tones for mom Diana in the first act and for her husband, Dan, in the second) give Fortunato’s vision the perfect intimate-stage professionalism to deliver her picturesque direction.
From there, the stage (along with the remainder of this review) belongs to BoHo’s stunning sextet.
As Diana, Colette Todd is naturally saucy, sincere and splendid. In this most demanding stage role, Todd delivers the emotional roller coaster Diana lives, taking the character’s family and the audience on an unharnessed expedition that includes a number of multi-story drops and a couple of loop-de-loops. Her gorgeous voice is particularly highlighted in the anguished ballad, “I Dreamed a Dance,” the illuminating, “I Miss the Mountains,” and in numerous others. Indeed, this is to be one of Todd’s signature performances.
Jeff Award winner Donterrio Johnson is superb as Diana’s husband Dan, who works so hard to be the family’s glue and stiff upper lip that his exposed cracks later in the piece amount to the gun from act one—destined to fire. The take-away from Johnson is the emptiness felt when hope and devotion just aren’t enough. His “It’s Gonna Be Good” and “I’ve Been” are featured songs.
Ciera Dawn as daughter Natalie names most of her recent credits coming from Emerson College, along with an upcoming part in Paramount’s The Little Mermaid. Her flawless performance here is destined to be but one of her earliest roles in a successful career on Chicagoland musical theatre stages, if she desires. Dawn’s rendition of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” along with her character’s necessary emotional pivots are at talent levels well beyond this fine young actor’s years.
Gilbert Domally, riveting as a late replacement in Paramount’s Hairspray and also recently seen in Porchlight’s Dreamgirls, is more than up to the task to take on the role of sometimes invisible, omnipresent Gabe, the son who died at eight months but who remains the leading player of Diana’s mental illness via hallucination. Another passionate young actor destined for numerous great roles, Domally’s rendition of “I’m Alive” and his lent harmonies to several songs in this wonderful songbook are memorable.
Finally, Bradley Atkinson in his professional debut is lovingly realistic as Henry, Natalie’s pot smoking boyfriend. And BoHo ensemble member Peter Robel’s excellent vocal chops and terrific acting are shown off well in the stereotypical roles of Diana’s psych doctors.
Certainly, there’s not a finer production of this sadly poignant musical to be seen. The only caveat to this most enthusiastic recommendation is for those patrons who want their hope (if not redemption) a bit more certain, particularly vis-à-vis mental illness, suffered by 26.2 percent of American adults and, therefore, 100 percent of American families.
Perhaps it’s not all together different from the enthusiastic participants in the local theatre casting conversation regarding race.
Members of both groups might well chant:
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
And yet, in its honest finale hymn, “Light,” Next to Normal tells us (and in BoHo’s case, does so in impeccable four-part harmony):
“There will be light.
When we open up our light.
Sons and daughters, husbands, wives.
Can fight that fight.
There will be light.”
So let the research and the dialogue and most of all, the compassion, continue. There will be light.
BoHo Theatre presents “Next to Normal” through Oct. 9 at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Amy Boyle Photography