BWW Reviews: La Mirada Stages Intense Revival of Pulitzer Prize-Winning NEXT TO NORMAL
Heartbreaking. Gutsy. Intensely riveting. So. Many. Feels.
These are some of the words I jotted down in the dark---while simultaneously wiping tears streaming down my face---during the Southern California Regional Premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical NEXT TO NORMAL, now playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts for a limited run ending June 23. The winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, this thought-provoking, emotionally-heavy musical play---which features music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey---has now been revived locally in a top-notch, Broadway-caliber staging that truly impresses from beginning to end.
Featuring caring, confident direction by Nick DeGruccio and a barrage of vivid acting performances by its stellar cast, La Mirada's sensible, superb production of this groundbreaking modern-day chamber musical somehow feels much more emotional than I remember---and in a very good way (the last time NEXT TO NORMAL graced L.A.-area audiences was, of course, the touring production that visited the Ahmanson Theatre back in 2010, with Alice Ripley reprising the role that won her a Tony Award).
Additionally, this new production allows for its few moments of quiet levity to cut much more noticeably through its haze of sadness than ever before. Much like the psychological tug of war being battled within the transparent walls of this show's narrative, this regional production feels much more invested in the ups and downs---and the blurred line that separates these extremes.
And believe me, those precious little bits of light amidst the exhaustive darkness is such a welcome respite here, especially considering that NEXT TO NORMAL, for lack of a better description, is one sad mutha of a show. While this musical's peers pushed the fluff and joy that is de rigueur of a Broadway musical (even super serious ones), NEXT TO NORMAL chose to eschew the rules of tradition in its aim to purposely dramatize one family's heart-wrenching struggles with loss and madness---warts and all---which, in the bigger picture, was also able to shine the spotlight on the barely-discussed subjects of mental health and, more specifically, bi-polar disease.
But, arguably, a significant percentage of what elevates DeGruccio's admirably refreshed, more hopeful NEXT TO NORMAL can be attributed to its talented leading lady, Bets Malone, who plays family matriarch Diana in one of the year's best performances. Her likable, down-to-earth, realistically-tinged portrait of someone in deep, emotional pain not only rightly earns our empathy, but also elicits our protective loyalty. Believable in every which way---from distraught to frenzied, to even, yes, humorously self-effacing---Malone's characterization feels much more grounded, especially when she gains a self-awareness of her own madness (even while hallucinating figments of her imagination or having a complete meltdown).
Yes, people, many of you who've come to rely on Malone's effortless comic stylings in various shows throughout Southern California (particularly as Suzy in the many iterations of THE MARVELOUS WONDERETTES franchise) will proudly applaud her highly-dramatic turn here. In fact, I'd like to point out that alongside her awesome singing pipes and tear-jerking monologues, it's her palpable comic abilities that actually set her portrayal of Diana apart from previous ones. Her Diana---despite having struggles that feel uniquely her own---somehow transcends that and comes off all the more relatable. By the musical's end, we have a glimmer of hope that her recovery to become "next to normal" is on the horizon.
Though, of course, it also helps that Malone is surrounded by an ensemble of actors turning in fantastic supporting performances as well. As Diana's oft-ignored teen daughter Natalie, Tessa Grady is convincingly both petulant and vulnerable in equal doses (her intensely powerful take on the angsty "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" is one of the show's many musical highlights), as she struggles for "normalcy" in a tense household. Alex Mendoza is an adorkable ne'er-do-well with a sensitive streak as Natalie's would-be beau Henry, while the riveting Robert J. Townsend is a dashing, steadfast rock playing Diana's harried husband Dan. Keith A. Bearden is deadpan-tastic as Diana's many doctors, including psychiatrist Dr. Madden (his "fantasy" breakouts in Diana's fractured imagination is a hoot).
And, lastly, as Diana's mysterious, swoon-worthy son Gabe, West Coast newcomer Eddie Egan showcases an incredible singing voice you've just got to sit up and listen to, particularly in the show's manic anthem "I'm Alive." His rather, uh, persuasive interplay with his mother is the meaty center to the show's OMG moment that makes the storyline all the more heartbreaking.
As far as the show's technical aspects, this McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation is first class all the way. The show boasts a highly-effective multi-tiered set designed by John Ezell, utilizing a cut-out of a house made of cracked glass panels as a metaphor for the musical's fractured themes. Meanwhile Musical Director Darryl Archibald leads the show's hardworking downstage band through Kitt's beautiful score with alt-rock precision, enveloping the show's cast with a vivid sound for them to sing their guts out.
But, overall, it's the musical's touching, powerful story that you will remember long after you've left the theater, even if it offers no real, concrete resolutions. It's no surprise that as a society, mental health has not entered into the everyday conversation of our busy lives. It is only when tragedy strikes when such matters come into focus. And, of course, everyone has a different predisposition in how one responds to traumatic events; some mourn and move on, some turn to medication or other substances to dull the pain, while others simply succumb to the demons that prove difficult to silence.
Stunningly, NEXT TO NORMAL not only tries its best to highlight this often-neglected struggle and how it affects the people around it, it also presents this very struggle in a memorable, hopeful, musically-cathartic way. Yes, that path to healing is both a science and an art. And it's got a pop-rock beat to go with it.
But despite its utter sadness and its uneasy subject matter, NEXT TO NORMAL deservedly remains one of the most important Contemporary Stage musicals of the new century, and La Mirada's revival of this great show is indeed a stunner. The open outpouring of raw emotions in the musical is exactly what makes it so good, as effective art often can be. Rich in style and substance, NEXT TO NORMAL shakes you to the core when done right---and La Mirada's production certainly accomplishes this feat, unflinchingly.
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Performances of NEXT TO NORMAL at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, CA continue through Sunday, June 23, 2013. The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard. Parking is free.
For tickets visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.