Thursday, January 6, 2011

Anything but normal

Posted By on Thu, Jan 6, 2011 at 4:22 PM

For service points, few touches can top tableside guacamole preparation.
  • For service points, few touches can top tableside guacamole preparation.
Apologies for starting with a digression, but before I tell you why you should do your best to make it to Denver's beautiful Ellie Caulkins Opera House before Jan. 16 to catch Next to Normal, I have to quickly tell you about the dinner I ate before seeing the show last night.

After many recommendations from friends, I finally made it to LOLA, which I briefly mentioned last month in my feature on Dave Nigh. Chef Duane Walker and crew totally killed it, blowing us away on both the food and drink fronts.

We went for the guacamole ($8), lobster and plantain tamale ($12), mussels in a sweet chili and agave nectar broth ($8), and chicken mole verde with winter squash and house chorizo ($18). We also did a tequila flight, then enjoyed some superb margaritas. Check out the menus here:


tequila_list.pdfdrink_menu.pdfdinner-1.pdf

I won't ramble on with food descriptions so we can get to the theater, so I'll just say that LOLA's coastal Mexican tribute absolutely levels most Tex-Mex eateries that litter the Colorado landscape. Think gourmet, not gut bomb. LOLA's sauces are mature but simple, the dishes gorgeously spiced, and that mussel broth in particular deserves awards and undying fealty. Simply stunning — my dinner companion said they're the best mussels he's ever had, and I can't off the top of my head think of any superior.

So ... off to the theater:

The stunning set succeeds on all levels.
  • Craig Schwartz
  • The stunning set succeeds on all levels.

The details you need to know about Next to Normal, which first opened in February 2008:
• It's from the director of Rent.
• It won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
• It garnered three Tony Awards in 2009 for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
Alice Ripley, who won that Tony as the actress, stars in this touring performance in Denver.

Curt Hansen (top left) made particularly great use of the set, nimbly maneuvering around the poles and up and down the stairs. His intensity was explosive during some songs and set a tone matched by the other excellent actors. Did I mention how cool this set is?
  • Craig Schwartz
  • Curt Hansen (top left) made particularly great use of the set, nimbly maneuvering around the poles and up and down the stairs. His intensity was explosive during some songs, and set a tone matched by the other excellent actors. Did I mention how cool this set is?

Next to Normal's cast of six proves uniformly excellent, both physically and vocally. From the first beat of the play, the pacing, action and singing is relentless. Charged by the catchy soundtrack, the players exude tremendous energy in their roles, all built upon their struggles with protagonist Diana Goodman and her mental illness. (Watch for an upcoming blog post by Kirsten Akens for more on the theme of mental illness.)

As Diana, Ripley is simply a powerhouse. Though she may have had some vocal-chord issues later in the show, she displayed clearly within the first few songs why she deserved the Tony Award. Curt Hansen, who plays her son Gabe, delivers several powerful and emotional scenes; the muscular actor exudes both a creepiness and strange sexuality that charge his numbers. It's fun to watch.

And the lighting ... just awesome. I loved how many of the scenes were blocked to play thematically into the protagonists mental illness.
  • Craig Schwartz
  • And the lighting ... just awesome. I loved how many of the scenes were blocked to play thematically into the protagonists' mental illness.

For a play built on such somber subject material, it offers a handful of laughs in the witty script. And probably because the score is so vibrant and strong, it certainly doesn't leave the audience feeling too heavy on the way out. Yes, it's dark and often bleak, but there's a strong sense of hope as well.

What's clear at the end is just how much passion the actors have for this show — they look like they leave every last ounce of energy on stage. In the show's playbill, an interview with Ripley describes her post-show wind-down, which includes "a lot of alone time to recover from Diana." She calls the role "very taxing" and says " ... from a physical stamina point, I have to take breaks," from playing the role.

Next to Normal on the whole is anything but normal for a theater experience: It's poignant in capturing a condition that affects more than 20 million Americans, deeply fulfilling as entertainment, and impressive as musical theater.

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