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Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at The Crown Uptown Theatre

Runs until October 3

Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at The Crown Uptown Theatre

I love it when I go to the theatre and there's a Vaccine Raffle! That's right, if you show your vaccine card you can be entered to win a prize! I feel like I'm back in a place where people care about the health of their community and do things like this to promote it. Crown Arts Collaborative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission of returning theatre and art to the historic Crown Uptown Stage, and to make art for the community, by like-minded artists in the community.

This production is a beautifully wrought piece of theatre, and I can't wait for you to see it! You will be triggered, and you will cry, but it will be well worth the discomfort, as there is much beauty in the score, the singing, and the acting. With book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, Next to Normal won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Drama and three 2009 Tony Awards, including Best Score, and was also chosen as "one of the year's ten best shows" by critics around the country, including The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone and The New York Times. In the same way Sam Shepard dispelled the myth of the perfect family behind the rural white picket fence with his production of Buried Child back in 1978, Next to Normal is a contemporary pop/rock opera that peels the shiny veneer off a well-groomed, upper middle class suburban family as we experience their journey through the mental health care system as they cope with the disintegration of their perfect, privileged life when the glue of the family, housewife and mother Diana Goodman, battles manic depression. The show itself is very well written, and this team has told it well.

You'll need to listen carefully, as the words are so important here, and you don't want to miss ANYTHING. Fortunately, the actors have crystal clear enunciation, and thanks to sound designer Jesse Balzer, the voices and the band was mixed very well, so it wasn't difficult. Director Molly Tully told this story well, crafting beautiful moments and lovely staging, using the beautiful set designed by Kate Smeltzer to the utmost, crafting lots of interesting stage pictures in myriad moments. The set looked like an architect's rendering, all in white, with just the bones of the house intact. Very fitting for two young architecture students who fell in love and wanted to start a family. The set is lit beautifully by Scott Olney, who takes advantage of the plain white set to add color to match intensity and mood. Especially riveting is the flashing, blinding white lights during Wish I Were Here at the end of Act 1. Costumes by Deb Campbell tell the stories of the characters effectively. Music Direction by Andrew Bowers is spot on; the vocals are sublime and so is the band. The ensemble work by the entire cast is exceptional. There is definitely collaborative work afoot here at the Crown.

Shannon McMillan reprises the role of Diana, 10 years later, now a mother herself, with a very fine balance of psychological and physical finesse. McMillan's nuanced and exciting performance walks the tightrope of extremes, from demure to manic; she draws you in and takes you along for a wild ride. Playing Diana's patient husband Dan is John Keckeisen. John's work is clean and precise, and he brings a quiet strength to the role. We certainly feel for poor Dan, watching his wife, the love of his life, and everything he's worked for slip away - we feel his anger and deep frustration as he tries to manage the unmanageable.

Ryan Schafer plays Gabe, the son who died and created Diana's trauma. She has kept him alive in her imagination and he is now a young man. Ryan's Gabe is intense, demanding, and controlling. Gabe talks Diana into contemplating suicide and begs her not to continue her psychiatric treatment. In stark contrast is Natalie, the surviving sibling, the miserable daughter who visits the sins of the mother. Madi White's complex character study is superb. She has taken great care with Natalie's character arc, as she walks from classic teenage angst, embarrassed by her mother because she knows her family isn't "normal," yet longing for unconditional acceptance and love. Showing the same quite strength as Keckeisen, Natalie's strong armor can only keep the hurt out for so long. The song Superboy Invisible Girl is a standout song here, and I love the line, deadpanned by White "Most people who think they're happy are actually stupid." Matthew Hale as Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, is the only character in this story who is grounded. Here again we see the quiet strength and determination of someone who will do whatever it takes to bring Natalie around to see herself worthy of love. Hale does a fantastic job here, sparring with White's character, helping her knock down fences and demons.

Rounding out the cast is Joey Yates playing the dual role of Dr. Madden, the automaton doctor, prescribing meds by the book, and Dr. Fine, the ROCKSTAR Doctor. Dr. Fine is one of the first doctors who locates Diana's trauma and asks her to let the son go. Yates IS FINE, has an amazing tenor voice, and is quite mesmerizing in Open Your Eyes. His fine performance is yet another exhibition of quiet strength and passion, a trait that runs through this entire cast.

Something that surprised me? I kinda hated there was an intermission.

Next to Normal runs September 11th to October 3, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Prices are $10 for Students, $20-30 for Adults, and $18-28 for Seniors. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (316) 612-7696 or going to https://www.crownuptown.com/events/next2normal and clicking on the Single Tickets button.

There is an MHA TALKBACK each Sunday of the run, and 15% of sales go to Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas.

You may also buy Season Tickets. Prices are $50-80 for Adults, $48-78 for Seniors, and $25 for Students. To purchase Season Tickets, go to the website https://www.crownuptown.com/events/next2normal and click the "Pre-Season Tickets" button below for early access. Pre-Season Tickets include a discount on tickets to the first three shows, your name listed in program, an opportunity to buy tickets before they go on sale to general public, priority seating, a free ticket to the August FUNdraiser, discounted 2022 Season Tickets, and 10% off single tickets for friends and family.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is up next, running October 9-26th. The Crown Uptown Theatre is located at 3207 E Douglas Ave., Wichita, KS 67218.



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