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BWW Review: Desert Theatreworks Presents a Fabulous Production of NEXT TO NORMAL in its New Venue

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Diana Goodman (Christine Tringali) and her son,
Gabriel (Matt Brackstone)

Desert Theatreworks (DTW) has pulled off an amazing feat with its excellent production of the Yorkey-Kitt Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning rock musical NEXT TO NORMAL, the last production of this season. A week before the opening performance, the company had not yet moved into its new venue, the Indio Performing Arts Center. Much of the show had to be blocked anew after the move; according to director Lance Phillips-Martinez, there was no time left for a full run-through in the new theater.

Knowing these challenges, I expected to be underwhelmed by NEXT TO NORMAL. However, the top-notch cast and director have delivered a brilliant set of acting and musical performances. During the first show, I noticed only two problems, both solvable technical matters: The sound system was still out of balance and the hastily erected curtain towards the rear of the stage did not fully conceal the actors' back and forth traffic.

Diana makes sandwiches on the floor, in a manic moment.

NEXT TO NORMAL is no comedy despite humorous moments. Mine were not the only tears in the audience, but the tearjerker ends on a hopeful note.

The story involves what seems from the outside to be a typical middle class family: a father, Dan (Luke Rainey); a mother, Diana (Christine Tringali); and two teenaged children, Gabriel and Natalie (Matt Brackstone and Brianna Eylicio, respectively). However, the family is actually anything but normal; the daughter at one point says she would settle for "next to normal." The mother is the only one with any kind of relationship with the son, and she complains that her husband ignores him. In contrast, Natalie is close to Dan, but Diana ignores her. As the story develops, the audience discovers that Diana suffers from bipolar disorder, and neither medication nor talk therapy have helped her. While her husband and son seem to cope reasonably successfully with her bizarre behavior, the daughter seems to be teetering on the edge of a breakdown herself. About halfway through the first act, the plot takes a turn that I doubt most people expect. Another change of direction before the intermission is easier to foresee, but no less dramatic.

Diana and her psychiatrist (Desiree Clarke, in a dual role).

The uniformly superb cast performs their roles with spirit and empathy, and they all display lovely singing voices. The small cast sings multiple contrapuntal numbers, a difficult vocal format in which singers perform separate stand-alone songs simultaneously. Musical director Donald Kelly and director Phillips-Martinez use recorded accompaniment; piano accompaniment is almost out of the question in a rock musical, let alone in songs with two melodies being sung at once. Yet, despite the inability to adjust the music if someone comes in a beat too late or sings at the wrong tempo, I noticed no sign of vocal mistakes in the performances. More importantly, all six cast members move seamlessly between spoken words and song, perfectly conveying the strong emotions that almost every minute of the show requires from its actors. Not once did I notice anyone forgetting to act while they sang.

Daughter Natalie (Brianna Eylicio) witnesses a tense
moment between Diana and Dan (Luke Rainey).

Golden-throated baritone Alden Dickey makes the wise decision to portray Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, as a sensible anchor trying to shield her from the craziness. Henry smokes marijuana and makes snarky comments. He could have been portrayed as an angry rebel, instead. However, by playing him as a wise-guy 17-year-old, instead of another lost soul, the actor and director emphasize that there is indeed such a thing as a "normal" family with a teenager.

The original version of the show assigns the roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden to a man. Mr. Phillips-Martinez instead has sex-switched the dual role - a superb choice because Desiree Clarke, who displays the appropriate mix of sympathy and authority, is perfectly cast. When the doctor's professional mask slips in the second act, Ms. Clarke creates an electric moment.

Natalie and her boyfriend, Henry (Alden Dickey).

NEXT TO NORMAL contains many riveting scenes, including one in which Mr. Rainey, as stalwart Dan, finally allows himself to experience raw emotion. Another occurs when Diana, with her son's encouragement, decides to flush her medications down the toilet. The audience cannot help but be caught up in these characters' lives, as they are portrayed in this excellent production.

Thanks to the top-notch directing, acting, and singing, DTW's NEXT TO NORMAL is a must-see show.

[Disclosure: I recently appeared in Desert Theatreworks' reading of OUR AMERICAN COUSIN, and have taken a workshop taught by Lance Phillips-Martinez. I have also worked with five of the six NEXT TO NORMAL performers.]

NEXT TO NORMAL contains mature language and themes and is recommended for teens and up. The remaining performances are Friday, April 28th and Saturday, April 29th, at 7:00 p.m., and Saturday, April 29th and Sunday, April 30th, at 2:00 p.m., at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo Street, Indio, CA 92201. Ticket prices are $28.00 (general admission), $26.00 (ages 55 and up), and $16.00 for students with school i.d. For tickets, go to the Web site at www.dtw.org or call (760) 980-1455.

DTW's 2017-18 season will consist of the Broadway musical version of MARY POPPINS; THE WOMAN IN BLACK; Neil Simon's THE LAST OF THE RED-HOT LOVERS; THE GREAT AMERICAN TRAILER PARK CHRISTMAS MUSICAL; NUNSENSATIONS! THE NUNSENSE VEGAS REVUE; ON GOLDEN POND; the beloved musical, GREASE; and the comedy, JEWTOPIA. Season tickets are currently on sale.

Photos: Paul Hayashi


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