The Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Next To Normal gets its very first locally-produced Southern California production at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, directed by the SoCal genius that is Nick DeGruccio and featuring some of our most brilliant L.A.-area talents. Need I say more?

NEXT TO NORMAL - 3 Robert J. Townsend and Bets Malone star as Dan and Diana Goodman, a 40ish married couple who would, on the surface at least, appear to be heading “the perfect loving family.” Sure, as Diana sings in “Just Another Day,” “my son’s a little shit, my husband’s boring, and my daughter, though a genius, is a freak,” but what family is perfect? Dan, Diana, Gabe (Eddie Egan), and Natalie (Tessa Grady) would seem to be living the all-American dream, that is until you scratch a little deeper and discover some very big cracks indeed.

That Diana is battling bipolar disorder is something we begin to suspect a few minutes in, from the moment she begins to spread out slice upon slice of bread … on the kitchen floor, the better to speed up sandwich prep for husband, son, and daughter. No, indeed, something isn’t quite right at the Goodmans’.

“Zoloft and Paxil and Buspar and Xanax… Depakote, Klonopin, Ambien, Prozac…” are just some of the prescription meds Diana has been prescribed by Dr. Fine (Keith A. Bearden), as we learn in “My Psychopharmacologist And I,” drugs which may have lessened Diana’s anxiety, but have left her with headaches, blurry vision, “and I can’t feel my toes.” A dosage adjustment does manage to reduce Diana’s delusions, but it worsens her depressive state. Another adjustment removes feeling from fingers and toes, and leaves Diana with “absolutely no desire for sex, although whether that’s the medicine or the marriage is anybody’s guess.”

While Dan does his best to hold his house together, and seventeen-year-old golden boy Gabe brags in song that today, as always, “the world will feel my power and obey,” aspiring pianist Natalie, a year Gabe’s junior, has only her music to maintain her relative stability, that and the attentions of head-over-heels classmate Henry (Alex Mendoza), convinced that although he “might be lazy, a loner, a bit of a stoner, it’s true” he “might be perfect, I’ll make myself perfect… perfect for you.”

Meanwhile, missing “the mountains, the dizzy heights, and all the manic, magic days, and the dark, depressing nights” and encouraged by Gabe, Diana decides to go it alone, sans shrink, sans drugs, sans annoying side effects, and flushes each and every one of her pills down the toilet.

It’s about this time that Henry gets invited to his first dinner at the Goodmans’ … and Next To Normal book writer Brian Yorkey drops a bombshell that causes us to reevaluate all we’ve come to believe about this next-to-normal family—and we’re still only about twenty minutes into the show.

As thoroughly as any other Broadway hit in recent memory, Next To Normal demonstrates just how far “musical comedy” has come since Rodgers & Hammerstein redefined it back in 1944 with Oklahoma! As deep and dramatic and compelling as the best-written contemporary two-act play, Next To Normal takes the often overblown “sung-through” musical (think Evita, Les Miz, Miss Saigon, and Cats) and scales it down to an intimacy that would work equally well on a 99-seat stage as it does at the 1,251-seat La Mirada Theatre. Add to that a score by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey that combines rock rhythms, catchy melodies, and clever, insightful lyrics, and you’ve got a musical that will leave you entertained, shaken, better informed about mental illness, and profoundly moved.

NEXT TO NORMAL - 2 McCoy Rigby Entertainment couldn’t have made a more inspired choice to helm Next To Normal than two-time Scenie-winning Director Of The Year DeGruccio, who combines a command of big-stage musicals (Man Of La Mancha, Guys And Dolls, Rent) with expertise at directing intimate-stage plays and musicals (Caught, Dickie And Babe, Kiss Of The Spider Woman), making for a production that is visually exciting, gorgeously sung, and acted with astonishing power and depth.

Leading man Townsend has, over the five years since he dazzled SoCal audiences with his Ovation-winning performance as Jekyll & Hyde, transformed himself from boy-next-door lead to dramatic actor extraordinaire, with the pipes to match. Townsend’s exquisitely-tuned work as Dan Goodman follows his best-Sweeney-ever star turn in last summer’s Sweeney Todd (down Vista way), making him a shoo-in for Musical Theater Performer Of The Year, an honor sure to be shared with his Sweeney Todd and Next To Normal leading lady Malone.

Audiences who know this home-grown treasure from her deft comedic work as Suzy Simpson in all three Marvelous Wonderettes revues or as the scene-stealing, Scenie-winning Princess Winnifred of Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Once Upon A Mattress, have only seen Malone scratch the surface of her talents. Her performances as Evita, the mother in Ragtime, and most recently as the most exciting Mrs. Lovett I’ve ever seen, have revealed a deeper, darker side to Malone’s gifts, and her triumphant work as Diana Goodman may be her best to date. I don’t know of another musical theater star who could combine the force, the vulnerability, and the off-kilter craziness that Malone brings to the role, and as for her vocals, I can only shout “Wow!”

Grady’s performances in 42nd Street, Dames As Sea, The Sound Of Music, and most recently Grease, have revealed an ingénue triple-threat to be reckoned with, making her gutsy, heart-breaking dramatic work as Next To Normal’s Natalie all the more remarkable and revelatory. Newcomer Mendoza, seen recently to considerable advantage in La Mirada’s Spring Awakening, makes it two pitch-perfect performances in a row, his utterly adorable and thoroughly endearing Henry precisely what any of Diana’s doctors might have prescribed for her daughter. Bearden, who has alternated between Broadway and L.A.-area productions including La Mirada’s Johnny Guitar and last month’s Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, provides expert support as a pair of Diana’s psychopharmacologists, most notably sexy, rock-star piped Dr. Madden. Finally, making a stellar West Coast debut is New Jersey-born Egan, who simply couldn’t be better as all-American son-and-jock Gabe, whether lending moral support to mom Diana or singing Gabe’s higher-than-high notes with purity and power.

Musical director Darryl Archibald once again elicits exquisite vocal performances from his cast, in addition to conducting and playing piano in the production’s superb, string-heavy six-piece orchestra, joined by Tyler Emerson, Shane Harry, Joe Jewell, Davd Lofti, and Claudia Vanderschraaf.

NEXT TO NORMAL - 1 Scenic designer John Ezell’s rented semi-abstract three-story suburban home set is an effective albeit simplified take-off on the Broadway original. Tish Finnegan’s costumes, also designed for a previous Next To Normal production, are character-perfect creations.

Completing the design team are a trio of Southern California talents. Steven Young’s terrific lighting design is by turns subtly dramatic and rock-concert flashy when flash is needed. Josh Bessom’s twenty-first sound design for McCoy Rigby once again proves his finesse at mixing vocals and instrumental accompaniment. Terry Hanrahan coordinates the production’s numerous properties (including plenty of prescription bottles) to perfection.

Jill Gold is production stage manager and Phil Gold assistant stage manager. David Cruise is technical director, Buck Mason general manager, and Cassie Nickols assistant musical director. Casting is by Julia Flores.

Next To Normal makes it one, two, three sensational musicals in a row for McCoy Rigby Entertainment, and all in the space of just three months. As thrilling and profoundly moving as musicals get, Next To Normal at the La Mirada Theatre makes for a production no musical theater lover will want to miss, and one that might even make those with an aversion to this quintessential American art form change their tune.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

–Steven Stanley
June 1, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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