Maxine Phoenix gives Broadway divas decades her senior a run for their money as Diana Goodman in USC Musical Repertory’s impressive intimate staging of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning Next To Normal, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s 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 turns manic, 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 shrinks (Patrick Olsen as Drs. Fine and Madden), 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 (Harrison Poe) brags that soon “the world will feel my power and obey,” aspiring pianist Natalie (Liz Buzbee), a year Gabe’s junior, has only her music to maintain her relative stability, that and the attentions of head-over-heels classmate Henry (Michael Kaczkowski).

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.

USC junior Sean Soper’s impressive Musical Theatre Repertory directorial debut has last fall’s Heathers: The Musical star not only finding ingenious ways of staging scenes in and around the multi-level, multi-roomed Goodman home but also encouraging his actors to dig deep into roles whose complexities would challenge performers with year’s more experience.

Simon’s Dan has the physical presence and dramatic chops to make us believe he is 40ish, deep-hearted, and doing his darnedest to hold it all together; Buzbee captures Natalie’s teen angst, her resentments, and her grudging affection for Kaczkowski’s  stalwart, nerdily appealing Henry; Poe’s edgy Gabe alternates between angel and devil to haunting effect; and Olsen, perhaps more than any actor I’ve seen play the dual roles, delineates clearly between milquetoast Dr. Fine and rock-star Dr. Madden, giving the latter a heart that’s not always been there in others’ work.

Ultimately, however, this is Phoenix’s show all the way, the USC senior more than fulfilling the promise shown in roles as diverse as Into The Wood’s romance-seeking Baker’s Wife, A Little Night Music’s naïve child bride Anne, and Company’s show-stopping Amy. As gorgeously voiced as she is stunning to the eyes, Phoenix’s Diana is her richest, most nuanced, deepest felt work to date in a performance that more than holds its own against the best of those who’ve won raves before her.

Sasha Bartol not only conducts a pitch-perfect live orchestra* (sound levels expertly adjusted by sound designer Mia Glenn-Schuster so as never to overpower unmiked voices), under her musical direction, Phoenix, Buzbee, and Olsen in particular show off Grade-A pipes.

Choreographer Tristan McIntyre scores high marks for integrating more dance into this Next To Normal than I’ve seen previously, from the tango footwork and full-cast backup moves of “My Psychopharmacologist And I” to a heartbreaking mother-son “I Dreamed A Dance” waltz to the dramatically surreal “Wish I Were Here.”

Scenic designer Edina Hiser has scaled down the Goodmans’ two-story house to fit the blackbox Massman Theatre to impressive effect, director Soper insuring seamless scene changes along the way. Aaron Jung’s color-coordinated, character-appropriate costumes are winners as well, and look even better under Ruby O’Brien’s evocative, multi-hued lighting. Kudos too to Sonia Mendez’s multiple props, including pill bottles galore.

Emily Hawkins is assistant director. Jamie Salinger is stage manager and Seira Murakami is assistant stage manager. Tyler Maegawa-Goeser is technical director. Edward Hansen is assistant lighting designer.

It’s been nearly ten years since I first discovered USC’s entirely student-produced, directed, performed, and designed Musical Theatre Repertory, years during which many of its talents have gone on to Broadway, regional theater, film, TV, and recording success, and if I’m right, Maxine Phoenix will be next on that list.

Next To Normal is one more example of why I keep going back year after year for more Musical Theatre Rep. There is some impressive work on view this weekend at the Massman.

*Rani Barlas, Bartol, Jeff Frantom, Sophie Mathieu, Mica Nafshun-Bone, and Trevor Zemtseff

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The Massman Theatre at USC.

–Steven Stanley
September 15, 2017
Photos: Austin Dalgleish


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