An Entrancing Production of “Next to Normal”

Richard Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)

I never thought a small company like Custom Made Theatre could produce a provocative Broadway musical of “Next to Normal”. Boy was I wrong. Not only have they produced this rock-infused musical but have made it up close and personal on their intimate stage with an outstanding cast of singers backed up with a six piece orchestra.

This marks the second time I have seen this challenging musical having seen the National Touring Company with Alice Ripley playing the bipolar mother. This production is just as good as the touring production.

“Next to Normal” is a rare recent example of Broadway reliability. The show has found an audience not by sugarcoating its depiction of bipolar disorder but by finding provocative ways of representing its emotional fallout onstage. Yes the subject matter is unusually forbidding but the artistry and determination are uplifting. It is part of rock-infused musicals confronting issues normally reserved for serious drama.

The Pulitzer Prize winning pharmacological musical is about Diana (Lisa-Marie Newton) playing a mother with bipolar disorder. This normal looking woman descends into a state of madness that resists the usual drug and psychotherapy protocols. Electroconvulsive therapy is recommended. Diana’s husband Dan (LaMont Ridgell), her daughter, Natalie (Mackenzie Cala) and her son Gabe (Danny Gould) who appears as an apparition and part of the family’s drama are instantly plunged into a state of crisis.

Natalie is justifiably sick and tired of a tribulation that has allowed most of her existence. She also has problems as she sinks into her own medicated haze and finds a boyfriend named Henry (Jordon Bridges) who is a younger version of her father.

What makes this musical breathtaking is its persistence that feelings can never be successfully put into compartments. It aims for the heart with a striking score by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist/book writer Brian Yorkey. The score details the symptoms surrounding Diana’s explicit self-awareness as she sings “I Miss the Mountains”. She even imagines her new physician Dr. Fine (Perry Aliado) as a “rock star” in Mick Jagger mode. The rock score is fervent and stimulating

“Next to Normal” cast is spellbinding and there is no denying the fierceness and poignant precision of the cast headed by Lisa-Marie Newton. She manically switches from euphoria to agony. She uses her vocal cords to intensify Diana’s pain. It is a tour de force of outstanding acting.
LaMont Ridgell has the complex role of Dan, her husband. He gives a splendid performance as a man who is both mushy and overly endearing and you know he loves his wife very much and will suffer anything just to stay with her. Danny Gould gives a charismatic performance as the enigmatic son Gabe. He has a commanding voice when singing “I’m Alive” toward the end of the show. Alameda high school senior Mackenzie Cala creates a distinctive impression as Natalie. As her boyfriend Henry, Jordon Bridges gives his first Bay Area performance is charming. He captures the kind-heartedness and misperception of adolescence.
Set designer Erik LaDue and lightning designer Maxx Kurzunki have built and lit a superb set to evoke Diana’s household. There is a scaffold in the back of the house upstage on the three sided theatre that is designed to be climbed on as do some of the actors. Kurzunksi’s light design features patches of light that spill onto the stage like shattered. Brian Katz direction is vibrant and fast pace. Armando Fox beautiful directs the six piece orchestra that is hidden behind a screen.

This is a show that everyone can appreciate but anybody who has direct experience in living with mental illness will find it especially moving.
“Next to Normal” runs through October 27th at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1622 Gough Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-798-CMTC or on line at www.custommade.org Coming up next is “Peter and Wendy” adapted and directed by Jeremy Bloom.