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BWW Review: NEXT TO NORMAL Asks Who is Crazier? The One Who Gets Help or the One Who Hopes for the Best?

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NEXT TO NORMAL tells the story of a mother, Diana Goodman, who struggles with bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. This contemporary musical is an emotional powerhouse that addresses such issues as grieving a loss, ethics in modern psychiatry, and the day-to-day reality of suburban life. With provocative lyrics and a thrilling score, this musical shows how far two parents will go to keep themselves sane and their family's world intact. The production plays more like a modern operetta as there is little dialogue with most of the story being told via the story-forwarding song lyrics.

As presented at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica through April 4, NEXT TO NORMAL proves to be a true, star-making vehicle for its star, Amy Coles, who portrays Diana Goodman with such authenticity, you will surely be drawn into her descent into and out of madness throughout the production. Ms. Coles also brings an incredible physicality to the role, as do all the members of the cast who are often required to run up and down stairs while singing lyrics that tell the story of a family struggling to come to terms with their falling apart lives.

The production also provides a star turn for 14-year old Zoe D'Andrea who portrays Diana's daughter Natalie, a teen struggling with her stressful home life and her awakening sexuality thanks to her first boyfriend, Henry, played by Terrence Jegaraj. Both young actors have incredible voices and their physical chemistry is palpable. You want these two to get along better than her parents do, but Natalie falls into the world of her mother's medicine cabinet and Henry's bong, taking her on a new path to self discovery.

David Meinke lends much confusion to his role as Diana's husband Dan. Certainly he has no concept of what his wife is talking about most of the time and just lets her be who she is, even though that may not be the best way to deal with her illness. As her descent progresses, Dan convinces Diana to undergo electric shock therapy, a scene played with brutal honesty and much struggle by Amy Coles. Her treatment scene is one of the many highlights of the production.

It is difficult to talk about Dan and Diana's son Gabriel without giving away a major plot point. So I won't do that. As played by Billy Hicks, Gabriel is the best possible son and the joy of his mother's life. However, Hicks does lend an air of menace, hovering over his mother at times when his presence seems to make no sense. Hicks's nuanced performance will keep you guessing as to what is really going on between him and his family- until later in the play when the truth is told.

Diana's two therapists are played by Matthew Artson, more often each seeming to care about her treatment than caring about her personally. Artson is a riot playing out Diana's inner visions of him when they meet for the first time, bouncing back and forth between dedicated therapist and red hot rock star. Artson has a real way with humor given his tall stature and immensely expressive face, both of which he utilize to the hilt in this comical scene.

The open, multi-level set by George Spelvin creates the image of a real split-level home as well as Diana's journey into the recesses of her mind as she runs up and down the stairs trying to figure out her life. Wonderful mood-setting lighting by William Wilday takes us on the family's jopurney to self discovery, both the dark and lighter moments.

While it may be centered on a depressing story of real loss, the realism with which director/choreographer Nicole Dominguez allows her actors to play out the story will draw you into these characters' lives and make you hope for the best for each and every one of them. Is that crazy? I don't think so.

NEXT TO NORMAL with Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, continues at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, CA 90405 through April 4, 2015 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. The production is Directed / Choreographed by Nicole Dominguez with Musical Direction by Anne Gesling, Produced by W. Joseph Anderson and Larry Gesling

Tickets $20-$25. Reserved seats available at www.morgan-wixson.org or phone 310-828-7519.

Photos by Joel D. Castro


David Meinke and Amy Coles


Amy Coles, David Meinke, Billy Hicks


The family lives out their everyday suburban life


Zoe D'Andrea and Terrence Jegaraj


Billy Hicks and Zoe D'Andrea


Matthew Artson and Amy Coles


Diana images her therapist as a red hot rock star! Matthew Artson and Amy Coles


Matthew Artson, Davud Meinke, Amy Coles


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