Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre

The production runs through June 11th at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale, AZ.

By: Jun. 05, 2023
Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre

Guest contributor Suzanne Whitaker offers her perspective in this review of Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre’s production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s NEXT TO NORMAL, directed by Chris Chavez.

Here now - From the keyboard of Suzanne Whitaker:

Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre’s NEXT TO NORMAL is a captivating story of a mother’s bipolar disorder (formerly, “manic depression”) and the effects of her illness on her family: her husband Dan, her daughter Natalie, and her interactions with Natalie’s boyfriend Henry and with her doctors. There are only seven characters, played by six actors. Diana’s obsession with Gabe, her deceased son, is foremost on her unwell mind.

The theatre is tucked away in the lower level of Scottsdale’s Fashion Square Mall, next to several small stores and snacking options. The chairs rock comfortably, and the venue has a long wheelchair ramp and short series of stairs. The small stage appears smaller with the very talented musicians on stage just behind the actors. It’s always a treat to hear live music. Music director Jennifer Adams also plays in the band, which performs lively rock music in “I’m Alive,” as well as more soulful songs. The balanced audio results in neither the instruments nor the actors too loud or too soft – aural perfection. NEXT TO NORMAL is lyric-heavy even for musical theater, with limited spoken lines. The production is directed by Chris Chavez.

Erin Ryan brilliantly plays the character Diana Goodman. While Diana is hyper-focused on her son Gabe – or rather, her delusions of Gabe – she all but ignores her daughter Natalie, who is bitter and very full of teenaged angst. The young adult Gabe Goodman is played by Kyler Tunnell, and Tabi Momeyer plays the role of teenager Natalie Goodman. Natalie’s boyfriend, the shy Henry, is played by Noah Sucato. The younger characters seem typical to their ages.

Bipolar disorder holds a grip on the family; the mind often does not realize it is sick. Diana flushes her medication, even though Gabe questions her judgment. After reciting a long list of unwanted side-effects, Diana opts for talk therapy instead of pills, but zones out with her psychopharmacologist, played by Matthew Ryan Harris. Matthew plays both psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist, Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine. The second doctor is a rock star, complete with rock music, one long earring, and rave-type lighting. The first doctor is decidedly more formal. At one point, Diana says she now feels “nothing” - her doctor unironically declares her “stable.”

The doctor tells Diana that her bipolar disorder was triggered by trauma. The trauma is revealed to be the death of her son Gabe as an infant. At her family’s urging, Diana tries a more drastic treatment: a series of electroconvulsive therapy (“ECT”), which causes some memory loss. Diana has an out-of-body experience when sedated for the ECT, and moves around her gurney as the medical team works and dances. Is it better to remember traumatic events, or better to forget them? Is it better to be medicated for your own and others’ sake, or unmedicated and free from unpleasant side effects, but having manic episodes and major depression? Natalie, in particular, is hurt when Diana doesn’t remember who her daughter is after ECT treatment.

The character of Dan Goodman, Diana’s long-suffering husband, is played by Andy Albrecht. Dan is warm and supportive, becoming more emotional at the end of Act Two. Having witnessed years of medication treatment, talk therapy, and now ECT, the family realizes that there is a continuum of normality, rather than a toggle of “normal/not normal” – and decides that next-to-normal is okay enough.

Center stage serves as the family dining room, the medical offices, and the ECT treatment room. Scenes from bedrooms and other offices occur on four elevated mini-stages of varying heights, with small sets of stairs. Two stage-width steps from the main stage and into the audience allow the actors more room. Two side stages represent the front porch of the Goodman home or ways of ingress and egress. Despite the small space, no scenes seem crowded, and the stage hands quickly change the furniture as the band plays on.

The lighting and multiple costumes are fast-changing. Diana’s delusions are accompanied by fog or flashes of light – especially for the “rock star” psychiatrist, and more subtly for Gabe: more fog, alluding to his spirit. No one except Diana speaks to, or speaks of, Gabe. Her doctor lets the cat out of the bag following ECT, and Diana then leaves her family. The family seems rather relieved, although Dan weeps for the loss of Diana and, it seems, finally, the loss of his son as an infant.

This wonderful show runs June 2-June 11, 2023.

Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre ~ Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586
Scottsdale, AZ ~ Click Here ~ 480-483-1664

Graphic credit to Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre


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