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Putting mental illness to music in Deep Dish Theater's Next to Normal


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I'll venture an educated guess here: Last Saturday's performance of Next to Normal at Deep Dish Theater was about three nights away from the version they really wanted us to see.

Many in attendance would have been surprised to learn that Lisa Jolley, who plays the lead role of Diana, had been voiceless throughout final rehearsals, due to that upper respiratory bug so many have spent time with lately. Friday night's performance marked the first time she'd sung all week. And though a spokesperson said everyone now was in good health, on Saturday I was struck early by the rawness in the voice of John Allore, who plays Diana's husband, Dan.

Losing your voice is the stuff of theatrical nightmares. So by all means, let's sign both up for whatever the theater's equivalent is of a Purple Heart. Then add board operator Matthew Lubin's name to the list. Presenting a rock musical in so intimate a space would be daunting in the best of circumstances, but with the lead vocalist absent during tech week, Lubin was still very much in the hot seat Saturday. Vocal balance and overamplification were problematic throughout the evening, with backing vocals regularly as loud or louder than the leads and even the orchestra. Director Paul Frellick's staging, too, seemed awkward at times on Rob Hamilton's cramped set.

Economics usually drives independent theaters to forgo the luxury of understudies. Generally, they're lucky. But Saturday's performance had an important lesson for when they're not. Even if a performer fully recovers from an illness by opening night, a show's technical component has to recover too. Lacking a full week of tech rehearsals, there was very little time for that to happen here by Saturday, though a fearless cast and crew kept the ship afloat.

Playwright Brian Yorkey dares much in this 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, which gets its second Triangle run this season. Instead of exploiting Diana's condition as a conduit for our pity, Yorkey brings mental illness home, with integrity. Diana is forthright, witty and courageous as she struggles to find and keep a sense of stability. Jolley gives her the sharpness and dignity of someone determined to survive with a chronic condition.

Allore conveys the bewilderment and fatigue of a husband who wonders how much hope is really left as multiple treatments fail. Abigail Coryell conveys the desperation of her overachieving high-school daughter, though her relationship with boyfriend Henry (Jeffrey Vizcaino) remained under construction Saturday night.

Next to Normal also discerns this family's dysfunctions as something separate from the challenges Diana faces herself. Since composer Tom Kitt's score sparkles, music director Julie Florin's ensemble should sound more than occasionally crisp once last week's challenges are overcome. By the sound of things, I think it'll take three nights. They should have passed by the time you read these words.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Closer to fine."


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