NEXT TO NORMAL

Deedee Magno Hall gives a beautifully nuanced performance as bipolar wife-and-mother Diana Goodman opposite her real-life spouse Cliffton Hall’s powerful Dan Goodman in Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next To Normal, and though the East West Players season closer doesn’t deliver on all fronts, it provides the Halls with a pair of dream roles and audiences with a moving musical look at the effects of mental illness on an all-American family.

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 (Randy Guiaya), and despite lessening her anxiety, the drugs have left 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 (Justin W. Yu) 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 (Scott Keiji Takeda).

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 unspoken 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 features a score by composer Kitt and lyricist Yorkey that combines rock rhythms, catchy melodies, and clever, insightful lyrics, adding up to a musical capable of leaving an audience entertained, shaken, better informed about mental illness, and profoundly moved.

Director Nancy Keystone does some things quite brilliantly at East West Players (the Diana-as-puppet, both miniature and human-sized, is truly inspired, there’s a Dan-Gabe moment at the end that devastates as I’ve never seen it before, and the graduation-reunion provides some much-needed hope), others merely adequately (much of the staging adds nothing all that new to the Broadway original), and some in need of rethinking (situating so many scenes high up on the second floor balcony adds too much distance to moments that would benefit from being played up close and personal, particularly when performers are sliced in half by a horizontal railing, and some of Gabe’s blocking seems misconceived given what we eventually learn).

Also problematic is Hana Sooeyeon Kim’s scenic design, one which frames the entire action in white, making the John Aiso Theatre stage seem too big and bright for a musical that calls for darkness and intimacy. As for the lamps-in-frieze on those white panels, though they look nice when lit, I’m confused about their intent.

Fortunately, Keystone has cast six absolutely sensational singers to bring Kitt’s music and Yorkey’s lyrics to cast-recording-ready life, masterfully musically directed by Marc Macalintal, whose backstage orchestra sounds about twice its six members (Takeshi Kato, Khris Kempis, Macalinatal, Vince Reyes, Yu-Ting Wu, and Rebecca Yeh).

Magno Hall gives audiences a softer, gentler version of Broadway original Alice Ripley’s uber-intense Diana, but one whose many shadings as Diana careens from highs to lows and back again, from lost child to grieving mother to angry wife, make it a memorable showcase for Broadway’s Miss Saigon.

Leading man features masked behind an outdoors-guy beard, a quietly moving Hall plays Dan as someone simply doing his best under difficult circumstances, and his real-life relationship with Magno Hall only adds to the emotional impact of their scenes together.

Briones reprises Natalie from last summer’s Pico Playhouse production in a performance that has only grown richer and more intense with time, and her Henry, the always appealing Takeda, combines nerdy charm with a tenor his previous roles have kept hidden.

As for  Yu and Guiaya, though both would shine in the right roles, they are miscast here as Superboy Gabe and Rock Star Dr. Madden.

Kim’s projections, while few, once again reveal one of our most gifted projection designers, Karyn D. Lawrence lights the stage to vibrant, dramatic effect, Lena Sands’ muted-toned costumes suit each character’s styles and idiosyncrasies, Glenn Michael Baker has come up with a terrific collection of props (including pill bottles galore), and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is an impeccable mix of instrumentals and amplified vocals.

Anthea Neri plays Diana from Thursday May 25 to Sunday May 28.

Shen Heckel is assistant director. Brandon Hong Cheng and Jennifer Slattery are stage managers.

Though the East West Players’ 51st-anniversary season finale isn’t quite the Next To Normal I was hoping for, if nothing else it provides its two stars with characters they were born to play. Roles-of-a-lifetime don’t come around every day, and it’s worth seeing Next To Normal to see Deedee Magno Hall and Cliffton Hall in these.

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East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. Through June 11. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00. Reservations: 213 625-7000
www.eastwestplayers.org

–Steven Stanley
May 17, 2017
Photos: Michael Lamont

 

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