Saturday, August 27, 2016

Next to Normal – Music by Tom Kitt, Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey

Nick Sarando and Isa Briones - Photos by John Dlugolecki

By Joe Straw

Next to Normal music by Tom Kitt and Books & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey was the winner of 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. On Broadway, Next to Normal was awarded the 2009 Tony Award for Best Original Score.  With these remarkable credentials one could not stay away.

But, in the Pico Playhouse, one wonders about the complexities of staging a full blown musical here, on this tiny stage.   A Broadway show, a rock musical at that, presented in a 99-seat venue in one of the most intimate houses on the Westside.  Three actors is a perfect fit, but with five actors things gets a little crowded.  This show has a cast of six and a five-piece orchestra. How?

Triage Productions presents in Association with Standing Room Only Productions The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award Winning Musical Next To Normal An Original Musical, Music by Tom Kitt, Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, directed by Thomas James O’Leary, and Produced by Zachary Lutsky, Rory Patterson and Selah Victor through September 25, 2016.  EXTENDED THROUGH 10/08/16!!

Next to Normal is anything but normal. The musical highlights human complexities and lays a character’s misery right at your mental being.  It draws you into the fallen and pulls you into a deep emotional crevasse.  Trying to understand the bitterest contradictions and complexities of a family on the verge of a complete metal breakdown are better left to the professionals. Still, this was one heck of a ride.

And all of this unfolds as the characters are mentally trapped in the cloistered existence of their own home.    

Just an initial observation: If you are the one next to normal, are you the normal one? Or, worst yet, are you the one who is next to normal?  

The Pico Playhouse is very easy to get to on the Westside.  Parking near the theatre, along Pico Boulevard, is free if one gets there early enough.  The staff is incredibly friendly and the theatre is mind-numbingly cool, so bring a layer. Seats are reserved and numbered.

When entering the theatre one suddenly notices how deep the stage has become, upstage appears to go on ad infinitum and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this stage that cavernous. 


And the stage is multi-layered.  On the lower level, center stage, sits a lone table with three chairs surrounding the table. Three.  And stage left there is a singular green chair  - one lone chair, highlighted.  

This is obviously someone’s home.  One can see it in the outline – a wooden façade – a chimney – home.

Upstairs, prominently displayed, is a mirror, a medicine cabinet, outlined by a bathroom light, that puts an unflattering canvas on the present. Light permeates the set, the stairs, hanging lights, and there are luminescent diaphanous cabinets for storage spaces.  Light emanates from every conceivable space, bringing to light mindful ideas, illuminating a connection, and projecting a sane stream of consciousness. All wonderfully created and functional by Jeff Cason, Scenic Design, and Matt Richter, Adam Earle & Andrew Schmedake are all responsible for the Lighting Design.

But with all this light, the set is surprisingly dark, like the feeling one gets in a deep dark state of depression, no matter the time of day, rain or shine, am or pm, brooding and motionless. It is those dark moments in time that accentuates this human misery and highlights the usually mundane day-to-day into a series of alarming choices.

Harrison Meloeny and Michelle Lane

And alone is where Diana (Michelle Lane) is now sitting on the singular chair near the kitchen reading a book waiting for her son Gabe (Harrison Meloeny) to come back from his all-nighter.  She scolds him as he playfully takes it all in stride. But he’s going to do what he wants.  

Dad (Nick Sarando) comes into the living room looking for his morning passion, just missing his son who has moved off into another room.   Diana says, “yes” to his request then scoffs to herself about the discomforting intimacy of the “ten minutes” he’s good for.

In the meantime Natalie (Isa Briones), their daughter, steps into the kitchen and right away worries about being perfect in school.  For her perfection is the key to making sure her day will go right.

Diana makes everyone sandwiches before they leave.  They sing “Just Another Day” as though everything is normal but Diana (Mom) fixes their lunch by sticking a piece of wrapping paper in a paper bag, handing it to them, and then shooing them off to their work. 

But, suddenly, Diana starts playing with the bread like a deck of cards, and throwing the pieces on the table.  Mustard, on the bread, like it or not, and then throwing more pieces of bread on the floor, one by one, a sign of a growing augury of future events.

Dad and Natalie look on incredulously as Dad tells Natalie to go off to school, that what she is seeing is only a blip in her life.

Some blip.

Later, Natalie is in a school band room, practicing her piano, getting lost in her music. Henry (Blaine Miller), a lovable student, interrupts her. He is more interested in her than her music, imparting his wisdom that jazz is less structured, more improvisational, and much more wonderful. 

What this teenager really needs is more structure, but she listens to him anyway.

Meanwhile Diana is visiting Doctor Fine (Randal Miles), oh yes Diana believes he is fine, a rock star as a matter of fact, someone who can send her into the land of benevolent ecstasy, an ineffable seduction with the proper amount of medication, until she feels, completely cured.  

But, now, after all the medication Diana feels nothing and the doctor appears to be a mountebank prescribing the pharmaceutical drugs like rock candy while speaking into his recorder about the progress she is not making.  

Diana observes that Natalie and Henry are falling in love, she see’s their first kiss, and wishes she could feel, something.  So with the help of her son, Diana flushes her medication wanting to be normal, or at least be next to normal.

Glowing from the candles - Diana brings out the birthday cake - for her son - Gabe, whom we now learn died in infancy.  This sends everyone into chaos, turning back the clock, and moving into the life of unforgiving shadows.

I was slightly surprised the singers were mic’d in this intimate space but everyone is doing it these days for various reasons. So. I’ve grown to accept it.  There were minimal problems with the sound, some singers sounding a little tinny, but over all the music was wonderful, the acting superb, and the musicians incredible.

I think “A Rock Musical” is a misnomer although I couldn’t begin to type this musical.  I only know that this was very satisfying and extremely unusual night of theatre. It is a night that stays with you.

Next to Normal is exquisitely brilliant.  The score by Tom Kitt is a mesmerism, songs of metal illness, and one that touches and embraces an emotional chord in your very being.  

Brian Yorkey’s lyrics transports you into the character’s state of mental anguish and for those reason this musical, and this version of the musical is wonderful. You would have to see it to appreciate it, absorb it, and let it live with you.  

Nick Sarando, Isa Briones, Randal Miles, Michelle Lane, Blaine Miller, and Harrison Meloeny

Michelle Lane is funny as Diana.  Well, funny in the way that you can laugh about your bi-polar illness. Lane touches all the right buttons, funny, sad, lonely and loving.  Great work and one that will have you leave the theatre with differing opinions as to why she is the way she is.  

Nick Sarando plays Dan. Dan is an extremely interesting character, somewhat superficial, caring but not caring enough to throw his whole life at his wife’s illness.  He’s got other things to do.  But, I think that deep down, he cannot go on with this relationship, that he has to move on but doesn’t know how to do it, because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.  Plus, he has never felt right about being helpless while his son dies in his arms. Possibly he feels to blame. Nice work.

Harrison Meloeny plays the dead son Gabe and it’s a role that has a bit of a predicament. Gabe’s adulthood lives in the imagination of his mother’s mental illness, what she believes he would look like. This presents challenges in the way the physical life to his mother is represented.  I believe the relationship with his mother must be stronger, a stronger mother/son relationship, a togetherness, a willingness, until the son, thanks to his mother, starts to turn a conniving corner. At a certain point, Gabe is pure evil. Maybe it’s her medication. Nevertheless, this is great work.

Randal Miles does excellent work as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine.  I loved the glasses.  Miles vocals were strong and the acting, as clear as a bell. Tremendous work.

Blaine Miller as Henry, the boyfriend, has an excellent look, and as the character fits right into the time and place. His acting skills are top notched, his comedic timing impeccable, and his voice lovely.

There is something very charming about Isa Briones as Natalie as she negotiates her way through teenage angsts. Briones is always in the moment and brings forth a character with a tremendous amount of backstory and rich history. The photograph scene touched a marvelous chord with me - where she decides that showing the pictures is best for her mother’s mental health.   

Other actors who are part of the show but did not perform the night I was there are Andrew Arrow (Dan U/S), Megan Fleming (Natalie U/S), Nick McKenna (U/S Gabe), Danny Potter (U/S Henry), and Selah Victor (U/S Diana). The understudy cast performs Saturday Matinees at 2pm on September 10, 17, and the 24th.

This is a very strong showing for Thomas James O’Leary, the director, and Taylor Stephenson, Musical Direction.  The book is ambiguous enough to allow the imaginative spirit to decide for oneself why Diana goes off the deep end.  It is also a show that tells us that every precious family moment is one that should be treasured despite the heart wrenching moments.    

A lot of hard work went into this production; the producers are to be commended for this outstanding production.  They are Zachary Lutsky, Rory Patterson and Selah Victor.

Other members of this delightful crew are as follows:

Vicki Conrad – Costume Design
Fritz Davis – Sound Design
Shawna Voragen – Stage Manager
Lori Berg – Property Design
Josie Austin – Asst. Stage Manager

This musical is mostly music with very little book and the musicians were incredible. The musicians were not seen but they deservedly should take a bow at curtain call as well.  They are as follows:

Taylor Stephenson – Conductor
Jorge Zuniga – Drums and Percussion
Lois Good – Violin
Nic Gonzales – Bass
Dominic White – Guitar

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who has just seen “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

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