REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Last Sunday, we ventured into Los Angeles to see two Ventura County theater alumni in a production of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that is being staged at the Pico Playhouse. Michelle Lane and Harrison Meloeny were both in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s 2015 production of Mary Poppins and have reunited to appear in this highly acclaimed production.
Next to Normal is one of those shows where you’re not quite sure what it is supposed to be but it captures your attention anyway. Is it a tragedy about the breakup of a nuclear family or a black comedy satire about psychotherapy quackery? The answer is both. Throughout the majority of Act I, the audience is almost too eager to laugh – they snicker uncomfortably at the sardonic humor of the all-too-earnest “psychopharmacologists” who are treating Diana Goodman’s long-standing bipolar disorder. By Act II, we realize that there is nothing funny about what is going on, as Diana undergoes ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), which robs her of her memory, resulting in the tenuous fibers holding her family together disintegrating before our very eyes.
Pico Playhouse’s production of Next to Normal is every bit as powerful as any we’ve seen, including the original Broadway production. In a heart-wrenching performance as Diana, Michelle Lane shows us an average American housewife in the midst of a 16-year struggle with her illness, which was apparently brought about by a traumatic event early in her marriage to Dan (Nick Sarando). We know something is wrong immediately when she sings the show’s opening song, “Just Another Day” in a disquieting minor key, and ends up making sandwiches for her family – on the kitchen floor.
We then meet Diana’s 16-year-old daughter Natalie (Isa Briones), who is using the stability and logic of Mozart to maintain her own emotional stasis. Diana and Dan’s 18-year-old son, Gabe (Harrison Meloeny) is noticeably detached from the family. He hovers over the kitchen table as they eat, and it isn’t long before we figure out the trigger for Diana’s condition, which occurred when Gabe was a baby.
The New York Times described Next to Normal as a “feel everything” musical, “which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.” Diana is anesthetized from her pain by the drugs that have been prescribed for her; it is the drugs that turn out to be the true antagonists of the musical. In Jeff Cason’s deliberately drab scenic design, the only bright spot is the bathroom medicine chest, which glows with a sinister glare when Diana opens it. “Nothing’s real,” Diana sings in the aching “I Miss the Mountains,” in which she mourns the loss of the “high highs and low lows” of normal day-to-day existence. The ECT she undergoes serves to only exacerbate her problem. “What is worse? The symptom or the cure?” an exasperated Gabe asks. In the end, with the family fractured and an uncertain future lying ahead for Diana, Natalie and Dan can only hope to be “next to normal” as a best case scenario. This disquieting optimism leaves the door open for reconciliation, but is the damage that has been done to this family irreparable?
Each member of the cast sings beautifully; with the parts vocally matched, which accentuates the bonds between two pairs of characters: Lane and Sarando (as Diana and Dan) and Briones and Blaine Miller (as Natalie and her boyfriend Henry). Both pairs have voices that are close in register to one another, making their duets even more powerful. Emotionally isolated from her mother, Natalie turns to drugs herself to numb her own pain and we feel the isolation of the wall she is building to block out not only her parents, but Henry as well. Briones gives a disquietingly effective, achingly nuanced portrayal of this very important character.
As Gabe, Harrison Meloeny is incendiary; he’s the force that Diana clings to with a mixture of grief, desperation, and longing. Meloeny bursts with kinetic energy as he floats about the set; at one point, he even swings on a horizontal light standard as if it were a parallel bar in an Olympic gymnastics event. Nick Sarando is solid as Dan, who can do little to help his wife; in the end, a subtle plot twist implies that he, too, might be abandoning reality in his own life, and Sarando handles this with understated elegance. His final scene with Meloeny may be soothing for the characters on the stage, but it is disquieting for us, the audience. Randal Miles is excellent as the two stoic, by-the-book therapists, who coldly prescribe one ineffective treatment after another as if Diana is a piece of Ikea furniture that needs to be painstakingly assembled, part by part. Miller is terrific as Henry, the erstwhile stoner who turns out to be the most stable character of them all.
Thomas James O’Leary directs with a sure and sensitive hand. The multi-tiered, muted-colored set gives each character the physical positioning needed for each scene, As an example, Gabe rarely sits and is usually on the higher tiers of the set or standing, showing his dominance over what is happening to his family. Taylor Stephenson’s four-piece backstage rock band (electric guitar, bass, violin, and drums) is good, but the score needs the subdued sadness of a cello that was used so effectively in the Broadway production.
Next to Normal is a groundbreaking musical in the pantheon of Broadway theater, a towering achievement for such a small scale, low budget show. It’s worth braving the Los Angeles freeways to see it.
Next to Normal plays at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles, through September 25. For tickets, visit www.N2Nmusicalla.com