- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
Los Angeles CA - “People who think they’re happy just haven’t thought about it enough.” This powerful line is just one of many that makes Next to Normal, currently being presented at Los Angeles’s Pico Playhouse by Triage Productions in association with Standing Room Only Productions, one of the most celebrated and praised musicals of recent decades. I am happy to report the spirit of the original Broadway production, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as three Tony Awards, is alive and well in this incredibly intimate staging.
With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal is a rock musical about a family living with mental illness. The matriarch, Diana (Michelle Lane) has bipolar disorder, which is amplified by her ongoing struggle to come to terms with a catastrophic loss she and her husband, Dan (Nick Sarando) suffered over sixteen years ago. Their 16-year-old daughter, Natalie (Isa Briones) is an accomplished student and musician who is constantly worrying about both living in the shadow of her older brother, Gabe (Harrison Meloeny) and about ending up like her mother, with whom she has a distant and strained relationship. As Natalie begins a romance with a boy, Henry (Blaine Miller), whom she meets at school, Diana’s illness takes a turn for the worse, leading her to seek the treatment of various doctors (Randal Miles).
I have seen several iterations of Next to Normal, from the original Broadway cast to the national tour to the local production at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts a few years ago. The 99-seat Pico Playhouse is by far the smallest theater I have ever seen it performed in, and Thomas James O’Leary’s direction made smart choices that utilized every inch of the space, including the aisle of the house, to truly bring the audience even deeper into the intensely emotional story. In many ways, Next to Normal is an interesting contradiction—the phenomenal pop/rock score is large and commanding enough to enable it to shine in a larger Broadway house, but the plot is an incredibly specific family story that easily adapts to a more intimate setting.
Next to Normal is a demanding, visceral show, and I ultimately found the cast to be a bit uneven on opening weekend, with a few notable standouts. Isa Briones, who is a high school student in real life, was simply sensational as Natalie, nailing the emotional arc of her character while singing songs such as “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” with a beautiful, crystal clear voice. I found seeing such a young actress in the role really added something to the character, and I suspect Briones’s name is one we will be talking about a lot in years to come. As Diana, Michelle Lane also did a fantastic job of conveying the many peaks and valleys of the character’s journey while finding key, small moments to differentiate her portrayal from the well known, Tony-winning performance of Alice Ripley. Nick Sarando’s Dan grew on me throughout the show, and I was brought to tears by the raw emotion displayed by he and Briones in the final songs. Also charming and enjoyable to watch was Blaine Miller as Henry, who as a character truly deserves a place on every “best boyfriends of musical theater” list.
I have written previously about how I firmly believe Next to Normal to be one of the best musicals of the past fifteen years. Few shows can compare to its ability to deliver an emotional gut punch again and again, and its portrayal of mental illness and its impact on both individuals and families is so incredibly important and still all too rare across all forms of media. I find new productions of shows I love so deeply to be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it is nearly impossible to prevent comparisons to previous versions and casts, but on the other hand, when the lights go down and the opening notes begin to play, it feels like revisiting an old friend, regardless of the specifics. Judging by the number of audience members I saw discreetly wiping their tears by the curtain call, it is safe to say this musical is in very capable hands with this cast and creative team.
Next to Normal runs at the Pico Playhouse through September 25th with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $32 and can be purchased at http://n2nmusicalla.brownpapertickets.com.