Next to Normal Review - A Musical with a Message

With book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, NEXT TO NORMAL won three Tony Awards in 2009 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. A timely and thought-provoking story about the effects of mental illness on a family, NEXT TO NORMAL is expertly directed by Thomas James O’Leary and features a live five-piece band conducted by musical director Taylor Stephenson.

Harrison Meloeny and Michelle Lane - Photo by John Dlugolecki

Labeled as one of Broadway’s biggest and most compelling hits, NEXT TO NORMAL is a musical which will charm as it explores how family members must adapt to emotional storms as they arise. Diane (Michelle Lane) is bipolar and has been on every pill known to Big Pharma – but to no avail. As Diane’s moods shoot up and crash down, her husband Dan (Nick Sarando) and her daughter Natalie (Isa Briones) attempt to maintain some sort of equilibrium in the home.  Dan wonders if he might not be slipping as he tries to believe that “things aren’t as bizarre as they are” around the old homestead.  And teenager Natalie can’t reach out to her mother, who holds tightly and exclusively onto her relationship with her first-born child Gabe (Harrison Meloeny).

Nick Sarando, Isa Briones, Randal Miles, Michelle Lane, Blaine Miller, and Harrison Meloeny - Photo by John Dlugolecki

Despite the very serious topic, there are flashes of dry humor as the cast describes “a few of my favorite pills.” Psychiatrists Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine (Randal Miles) offer palliatrive measures while trying to understand how Diane’s mind works. Meanwhile, teen boyfriend Henry (Blaine Miller) offers support to Natalie, who can barely manage the stress at home and may be a candidate for drug use and abuse.

Michelle Lane, Harrison Meloeny, Nick Sarando, Isa Briones, Blaine Miller, and Randal Miles - Photo by John Dlugolecki

A musical needs music, and each song reflects the conflicts or successes of this tension-filled drama – from “Feeling Electric” to “A Light in the Dark” to “Catch Me; I’m Falling” to “Maybe Next to Normal.” Lyrics echo spoken lines, while the music echoes Diane’s mental health – both slightly off key.  In fact, the music brilliantly becomes one with the play. Tempo and rhythms are off just enough to nudge the audience into living within the slightly off-key world of Diane’s family. Especially during Act I, the inability for family members to come together is repeated through biting words and the clash of minor and major keys. As issues begin to resolve in Act II, so too does the music flow with improving harmony.

Isa Briones, Randal Miles, Michelle Lane - Photo by John Dlugolecki

The entire talented cast does an excellent job of projecting the conflicting emotions inherent in the story – and can they act and sing! Director Thomas James O’Leary manages to pinpoint overt and covert feelings from every moment and event in this tale. An added bonus falls to author Brian Yorkey: the information and details about mental illness and treatment are accurate and realistic and not presented “Hollywood-style.” Jeff Cason’s clever set design allows for multiple scenes on one stage at the same time, while also allowing actors to quickly and quietly move the few stage pieces to their different destinations. Fritz Davis’ sound design, Angel Vivar’s audio engineering, and Vicki Conrad’s costumes enhance a production which appears to have been created for the intimate Pico Playhouse venue. Lighting by Matt Richter, Adam Earle, and Andrew Schmedake adds to the overall effect. As the musical unfolds, it will become apparent why it was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. This is a play worthy of an audience; it will trigger many thoughts and opinions which need to see the light of day in contemporary society.

Nick Sarando and Isa Briones - Photo by John Dlugolecki

NEXT TO NORMAL runs through 9/25/16 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.  The Pico Playhouse is located at 10508 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064. Tickets range from $32 to $36.99. For information and reservations, call 310-204-4440 or go online.

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