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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Tim Young and Sarah Litzsinger in the Milwaukee Rep's brilliant production of "Next to Normal." (PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

The Rep's thrilling triumph

It's been nearly a year and a half since Mark Clements assumed the artistic directorship of the Milwaukee Rep with the full expectation that he was bringing change. He has accomplished that.

Clements is a Brit who has spent most of his career in England. He is as comfortable directing musicals as he is staging straight plays. His theatrical esthetic and personal style are unlike those who preceded him in the Rep's top artistic job.

Certainly beginning his tenure last season with a visceral production of "Cabaret" put us on notice that Clements was willing to be bold and different. But seminal change did not occur until last Friday night, when the Rep opened a brilliant production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Next to Normal."

It was among the most stunning evenings in the company's 57-year history and dramatically signaled the arrival of an exciting new era for one of Milwaukee's core arts groups.

The show demonstrates the Rep is completely capable of telling a touching and achingly human story in a way we have never before seen on its stages.

"Next to Normal" arrived on Broadway in the spring of 2009 without the pedigree of famous creators. Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics, was a Broadway rookie, and composer Tom Kitt's experience was mostly as a conductor, orchestrator and musical director. Their show was the antithesis of the frothy or overdone musicals that dominate in New York.

The topic was tragic loss and bipolar disorder within the context of an average suburban family. The style was lean and muscular. The result was an emotionally draining but profoundly poignant experience for the audience.

This was accomplished by using a driving pop-rock score, rather than dialog, to establish a brisk pace and tell a difficult story. "Next to Normal" is more 21st century operetta than traditional musical. It contains spoken lines, but they set up the revelations found in the music, the reverse of the norm.

Relentless honesty and authenticity trump show bizzy pretension, and that is "Next to Normal's" greatest strength. We watch a middle-aged wife and mother grasping for hope as she rotates through a repeated cycle of psychotherapy, prescription meds and rejecting the medications because of their effect on her. We also watch the exhausting toll this takes on her husband and teenage daughter.

Staged in a large Broadway theater with its original cast, "Next to Normal" was such an engaging and surging roller coaster ride, the audience had reason to question its own sanity after the curtain call. The show threw a heavyweight punch.

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