Next to Normal – Theatre Review: Nearly Naked Theatre, Phoenix

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Reviewing a show that is now into its third weekend with only one more to go may feel as though you’ve arrived late to the party, but when several colleagues urge you not to miss Nearly Naked Theatre’s new production of the Broadway rock musical Next to Normal, you pay attention. Running until June 25, Next to Normal is NNT’s final production of its 17th season and more urging is required.  Catch it before the party’s over.  Here’s why.

With deft direction from the theatre’s founder and Artistic Director, Damon Dering, Next to Normal revolves around a mother struggling with bipolar disorder and the effects her illness has not only on her but also on those around her; principally, her family.  When a new day begins and Diana (Johanna Carlisle) prepares lunch for the family, we get our first glimpse of something wrong.

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Diana gets down on her knees and spreads the bread over the floor in one long formation, then slaps the luncheon meat on top of each slice.  She’s a little disoriented.  “I never know what she’s talking about,” declares her husband, Dan (an effectively sympathetic Dave Ray; you feel his pain) as the family readies itself to face another day.

Brutally honest and often upsetting and yet delivered with moments of good humor throughout, writer Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics incorporate other important themes not often associated with a musical, including drug abuse, suicide, damaging memory loss, grieving, denial  and even questionable psychiatry.  Having lived with this problem for sixteen years, Diana reaches a state where continual medication causes an eventual inability to feel anything.  In her life there are now no highs or lows, just a numbing, medicated state.  With encouragement from her son Gabe (Adam Bei; good presence; great voice) looking over her shoulder, mom pours her pills down the toilet stating, “I miss the mountains.  I miss my life.” You instinctively know that trouble will follow.  And it does. “Do you know what it’s like to die alive?” Diana asks during the heartbreaking You Don’t Know. 

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Like the overall rough-around-the-edges look to NNT’s production, there’s a raw energy to the show that never lets up.  The rock score, with music by Tom Kitt, leaps from one great song to the next with the kind of forceful, emotional punch reminiscent of another rock musical Dering successfully produced in collaboration with Phoenix Theatre a few years back, Spring Awakening.

The pulsating energy behind the songs from this sensational six-member cast is astonishing; voices soar with an operatic force that often comes at you with the full strength of a hurricane.  Backed by an excellent six-piece band under Curtis Moeller’s direction – the program amusingly calls them The Pill-Poppin’ Mamas – each song leaves you as emotionally drained as these characters must feel and the end of every day.   Those with a family member suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s or a bipolar disorder such as Diana’s will already know the feeling of never-ending despondency that accompanies these debilitating horrors.  Those who don’t should, at the very least, leave with a very real sense of the heartache and burdensome drama that occurs everyday.  The strength of Next to Normal is that despite this being an unlikely and heavy subject for a Broadway musical, the seriousness, as overwhelming as it can potentially be, never weighs things down.  There’s still humor to be found.

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As daughter Natalie (a thoroughly endearing Johnna Watson with a winning appeal for one so young) observes of her likable, weed-loving boyfriend Henry (an equally likable Vincent Pugliese) as he converts an apple into a makeshift pipe, “You’re the MacGyver of pot.”  There’s even a brief and timely ad-libbed Trump reference; evidently, Dering couldn’t resist.  Plus, when Diana starts her first session with a new doctor (an authoritative Brett Aiken with a good voice doing double duty as both of Diana’s doctors) she repeatedly hallucinates for just a second or two, seeing Dr. Madden as an intimidating, screaming rock star who towers over her.  Each time it occurs, Diana’s reaction is priceless, and very funny.

Which brings us to Johanna Carlisle.  At the center of everything is Johanna’s riveting portrayal of a tormented mother. Her emotions run a constant, perverse gauntlet, ranging in every emotion from fear, confusion, a sense of guilt, sometimes anger and a yearning for something normal that will never be hers.  As a performer, she falters occasionally when singing – that mid-range with this score is an issue – but she sells and delivers to the point where you may not notice.  It’s a powerhouse performance, yet despite an unexpected strength behind her character’s frailty, she neither overshadows nor out-performs the rest of the cast, or leaves them behind.  Diana may be the character around whom everyone revolves, but the way director Dering elicits the best out of all of his capable cast, the end result remains that of an ensemble piece; there are no weak links.

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When the show opened on Broadway to great acclaim in 2009 it won three Tony Awards followed a year later by a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The national tour came to ASU Gammage in Tempe, followed by a well-received regional valley production in 2013 at Mesa Encore Theatre.  And yet, with all this exposure, for whatever reason, the average theatergoer remains largely unfamiliar.  That’s why more urging is required.  With a closing date fast approaching, time is of the essence.  Despite a few mic hiccups and a couple of ill-timed lighting cues, this Nearly Naked Theatre production of Next to Normal should be seen.  It works from beginning to end.

Pictures courtesy of Laura Durant

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for NNT’s website

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