The 99-seat Pico Playhouse proves a just-right setting for a compelling, powerfully-performed intimate staging of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next To Normal, one of only nine musicals in Broadway history to have won the Pulitzer Prize.
Michelle Lane and Nick Sarando star as suburban couple Diana and Dan Goodman, long-married spouses who would, on the surface at least, appear to be heading “the perfect loving family.” Admittedly, as Diana puts it, her husband’s “boring”, her son “a little shit,” and her daughter “though a genius is a freak,” but what household is perfect?
The Goodmans are far from even coming close.
That Diana is battling bipolar disorder is something we begin to suspect from the moment she sets about scattering slice upon slice of bread on the kitchen floor, the better to speed up morning sandwich prep.
“Zoloft and Paxil and Buspar and Xanax… Depakote, Klonopin, Ambien, Prozac…” are just some of the prescription meds prescribed by Diana’s shrink Dr. Fine (Randal Miles), and though these drugs may have lessened her anxiety, they have left her with headaches, blurry vision, and no feeling in her toes.
A dosage adjustment does manage to reduce Diana’s delusions, but it worsens her depressive state before another adjustment leaves her 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 (Harrison Meloeny) brags that soon “the world will feel my power and obey,” aspiring pianist Natalie (Isa Briones), a year Gabe’s junior, has only her music to maintain her relative stability, that and the attentions of head-over-heels classmate Henry (Blaine Miller).
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.
It’s about this time that Henry shows up to meet the parents and discovers a heretofore bit of Goodman history that causes us to reevaluate all we’ve come to believe about this not even next-to-normal family—and we’re still only about half-an-hour into the show.
As deep and dramatic and gripping as the best-written contemporary two-act play, the almost sung-through Next To Normal takes this often overblown genre and scales it down to an intimacy that suits a 99-seat house far better than the 2000-seat Ahmanson where it made its L.A. debut back in 2010.
Add to that a score by composer Kitt and lyricist 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.
Thomas James O’Leary directs with visual flair and minute attention to performances that dig deep into each character’s emotional complexities while meeting the many challenges of Kitt’s musically complex melodies.
Lane’s sunny girl-next-door persona makes her an unexpected Diana, but a memorable one, and not simply for playing against type. Lane wins audience hearts from the get-go while exploring Diana’s multitude of emotional demons with heartbreaking honesty in the most crystal-clear of sopranos.
Sarando provides splendid support (even if the character he’s playing can’t always do the same for Diana), sings terrifically, and emotes to gut-wrenching effect when at last Dan has no choice but to confront his own devils.
High school senior Briones makes a radiant professional debut as an “invisible girl” unable to compete with her “Superboy” older brother. Beauty, acting chops, and Broadway-caliber vocals. Briones has them all.
Meloeny does revelatory work, diverging from his accustomed quirky persona to play an edgy All-American golden boy who would do any mother proud, and hits every one of Gabe’s high notes to sky-reaching perfection.
Miller’s nerdy-cute Henry is a velvet-voiced charmer with such terrific romantic chemistry opposite Briones that no wonder Natalie is smitten.
As for Doctors Fine and Madden (the latter showing up to give Diana both pills and the hots), Miles provides rock-star sexiness, GQ looks, and pitch-perfect pipes.
Scenic designer Jeff Cason’s abstract suggestion of the Goodman’s suburban home suits Next To Normal’s surrealism to a T, and is complemented by Matt Richter, Adam Earle, and Andrew Schmedke’s dramatic lighting design. Vicki Conrad’s costumes eschew the glitz of her Ovation-winning Drood-wear for character-appropriate realism. Lori Berg’s properties (including a plethora of pills) are topnotch too.
Musical director Taylor Stephenson and fellow backstage musicians Nic Gonzalez, Lois Good, Dominic White, and Jorge Zuniga provide bang-up backup, sound designer Fritz Davis expertly mixing amped vocals and instrumentals.
Next To Normal is presented by Triage Productions in association with Standing Room Only Productions and produced by Zachary Lutsky, Rory Patterson and Selah Victor. Shawna Voragen is stage manager and Josie Austin is assistant stage manager.
Like its fellow Pulitzer Prize winners Rent and Hamilton, Next To Normal demonstrates how far the musical has come since the days when any Broadway show was by definition a musical comedy. Dramatically moving and emotionally potent in equal measure, Next To Normal is everything a 21st-century musical should be, and the talented Pico Playhouse team do it absolutely right.
Click here for my understudy performance review.
Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
August 19, 2106
Photos: John Dlugolecki