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Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

The Rep's 'Next to Normal' Skims the Surface

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The Milwaukee Rep continues its season with Next to Normal, the Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt rock musical that opened to considerable acclaim on Broadway in 2009. Competent if not entirely inspired, the story explores a suburban family dealing with mental illness as the mother's treatment challenges the family's stability.

Directed by Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements, the ensemble cast brings an emotional immediacy to the story that manages to overcome a fairly forgettable script. The acting is good enough that eventually it doesn't even matter that father, daughter, mother and son all appear to be roughly the same age. Of particular note is Sarah Litzsinger as wife and mother Diana Goodman.

The subject of domestic dysfunction is very serious, and it deserves a deep theatrical exploration that Next to Normal seems hesitant to approach. There appears to be a complex dynamic in and among the family members, but it remains very superficial. We never get the insight of fully rendered characters. Instead, the musical gracefully glides across the surface of these complexities. It makes for a pretty musical drama, but it doesn't get to the heavy emotion. Ideally, the music should approach some of the missing depth, but it is thematically timid rock 'n' roll that doesn't explore anything new.

Lack of innovation aside, the production is solid and enjoyable, which is the aim of most musical theater. The large crowds that attend touring Broadway shows at the Marcus Center likely would have a much better time here.

The Milwaukee Rep's production of Next to Normal runs through Jan. 15 at the Quadracci Powerhouse. For ticket reservations, call 414-224-9490.