Crazy For You...

It occurs to me that in all my writing lately about theater in Chicago, I have not yet mentioned one of the greatest assets to the budget-challenged theater patron -- Hot Tix. The Hot Tix concept is a import from New York (bear with me though, it's a good one), wherein the League of Chicago Theaters has banded together to offer half-price theater tickets to the masses. It helps theaters fill seats that weren't otherwise going to sell, and it improves access to the arts by removing some of the cost barrier associated with attending the theater. Granted, you usually won't get the best seats in the house when you order through Hot Tix, but in cases where you're looking to take a chance on something new without the financial commitment, it can be a godsend.

Tickets become available through Hot Tix on Mondays, so if a show is going to offer seats, that's the best time to check. As long as you have some flexibility in your scheduling, you can usually find something that works for you. Since there are no guarantees, if you can only attend on a specific night, or you are celebrating a special occasion and want to be assured of fantastic seats, I'd recommend ordering in advance through Ticketmaster and coughing up the extra money.

I started my nearly obsessive checking of Hot Tix back when I discovered that it was actually cheaper than the original promo code Justin and I had found that inspired us to see Working. We saved ourselves about $20 that night, and I've been hooked ever since. When I saw that Next To Normal, the multiple Tony Award winning musical from 2009, was coming to town this week, I was mildly interested, but when I looked on Ticketmaster and saw that even less-than-desirable seats were going for a minimum of $106 plus fees and taxes, I decided to wait and take my chances with Hot Tix.

I happened to remember to check on Friday, and after a bit of hemming and hawing over the decision, I decided to be spontaneous and grabbed a solo ticket for myself. Even though I ended up spending about $60 I could ill afford, it might have been the most well-spent money I've allocated to the theater all year. You see, as it turns out, Next To Normal is a powerful show. It tapped into anxieties and emotions I didn't even know I had, and moved me to tears several times. The music (for which it won Tony awards for Best Orchestration and Best Original Score), was as incredible as I hoped it would be. For the first time this year, I came home wanting to download the soundtrack to a performance I'd seen, so I could relive it again and again.

Next To Normal tells the story of how one family is effected by mental illness, as its mother struggles to manage her bipolar disorder and hallucinations. The onset of her disease was triggered by the death of her first son as a baby, and she continues to see him as if he were still living with the family as a teenager. Her obsession with her dead son keeps her from ever truly being present in the life of her surviving daughter, and slowly ruins her relationship with her husband, who carries the burden of holding the family together. The mother tries a variety of drugs to help her condition, eventually attempts suicide, and is later pressured by her husband into trying electroconvulsive therapy, which also fails to help her. Somehow, the story manages to end on a hopeful note, but not before putting the audience through the emotional wringer.

For me though, that was most definitely a good thing -- I was invested in the characters from start to finish. The performers were all excellent as well; they were equally talented as both singers and actors. I was mildly disappointed when I saw that my performance featured the understudy for Diana, the mother, when the regular cast member who plays her, Alice Ripley, is the actress who originated the role on Broadway, and won a Tony for her performance. However, when I got home, I watched a clip of her performance from the 2009 Tony Awards, and I have to say that I think the understudy was every bit as talented.

Technically speaking, there was not much of note when it came to this production. The set looked very much like that from Working (clearly, the bare-bones, stacks of empty rooms aesthetic is a trend right now), but at least it provided a clean slate that allows the audience to focus on the story and the singing without distractions. The show is definitely good enough to handle that kind of directed scrutiny. Interesting, Next To Normal was directed by Michael Greif, who also directed Rent, and both musicals won Pulitzer prizes for Drama for their handling of important contemporary issues. Both musicals share a similar rock sensibility, but I found Next To Normal much more relatable, and enjoyed it far more.

Next To Normal is playing in Chicago through May 8th, and there are still tickets available through Hot Tix if you're interested in going. I really couldn't recommend it to you more -- it's the best show I've seen so far this year, and I've seen seven different shows in the past four months. If you aren't in Chicago, keep an eye out for Next To Normal on tour; it's definitely worth it.

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