Critic's PickWhen Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati (ETC) produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical next to normal last September, it was an early highlight of the 2011-2012 theater season. ETC sold a boatload of tickets, so when the opportunity presented itself to offer a two-week revival with virtually the same cast, it wasn’t a hard decision for director D. Lynn Meyers. Although it’s hard to imagine, ETC’s production of the show about Diana’s battle with schizophrenia and how that illness affects her family, is even more powerful now than it was nine months ago.
ETC has mounted the Rock musical with just one change in performers: Bruce Cromer has taken over the role of Dan, the father. He brings a sad anxiety to the role of a man who has tried for years to help contain Diana’s disease and to shield their daughter Natalie from Diana’s manic moods. Watching him agonize over how to help the woman he loves, you become deeply aware of his conflicts and pain.
Jessica Hendy was powerful as Diana in ETC’s 2011 staging, but she is now giving the role more texture and wallop. From the show’s initial performance last fall, her powerful singing was a cornerstone of the production’s devastating emotional impact: Her renditions of “I Miss the Mountains” (about how her medication has taken all the highs and lows out of Diana’s life) and the sad “Song of Forgetting” (following her electro-convulsive treatment) remain deeply moving.
But now, paired with Cromer, one of Cincinnati’s finest professional actors, Hendy gives an even more evocative portrait of a damaged woman who yearns to get her life back to normal — or at least “next to normal.”
Likewise, Mia Gentile as overachieving Natalie and Mike Schwitter as her all-too-perfect brother Gabe have deepened their performances. Gentile’s character swings from her own form of self-imposed but brilliant madness to gentle, romantic adolescence in response to stoner Henry (Nick Cearley, with goofy charm, joins her for three sweet encounters, each titled “Hey,” as well as the summation of their relationship, “Perfect for You”). Gentile’s singing is in top form too, especially “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” her anguished description of parental neglect. Schwitter has ramped up his performance as the dangerously attractive young man his mother imagines, full of threatening energy and strangely apart from the rest of his family. Charlie Clark plays a pair of doctors who treat Diana, bringing moments of humor, frustration and understanding to his scenes, not to mention a strong singing voice.
We have a lot of fine theatrical performances during any given season in Cincinnati, but it’s rare when one this good returns for another run. ETC’s next to normal is a production of the highest professional caliber. Its cast is flawless, both as individuals and as an ensemble; its musical accompaniment by Scot Woolley (music director) and musicians Joel Greenberg, Shane Jones and Jacob Yates compliments and supports the performers; and Brian c. Mehring’s extraordinarily imaginative multi-level house set switches back and forth between cool blue fluorescent and hot incandescent lights reflecting the mad flips of Diana’s moods. But you don’t have to travel to New York or Chicago to see this show: It’s right here at ETC’s Over-the-Rhine facility. If you caught next to normal last September, you’ll want to see it again. And if you missed it, you can make up for that mistake by getting a ticket right away.
NEXT TO NORMAL continues at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati through July 1.