Los Angeles Theater Review: NEXT TO NORMAL (La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts)

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by Jason Rohrer on June 4, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


When you avoid musicals as strenuously as I do, after a while you wonder why.  For some time I decided that it was the generally trite treatment of serious issues, a gripe which doesn’t hold up to analysis given the works of Kander & Ebb, among others.  For years I was sure my disdain was caused by all the prancy-schmancy musical theater people I went to school with, which doesn’t make sense because many of them are among my favorite humans.  For now I’ve decided that it’s the music.  I loathe utterly the soft-rock pop-vibrato sound of a top-hat full of sacred cash cows.  Miss Saigon, Rent, Spring Awakening: sorry, but if these limp tunes weren’t wrapped around a provocative book, they would be given away free with Starbuck’s lattes.  That generic, multiple-crescendo, dangerous-as-Pat Boone sound is usually enough to distract me from whatever shares its stage.  It lacks personality, it does not stand alone, it sounds like the ages have already rejected it.  As a character sings in Next to Normal, “I’ve seen this movie and I walked out.”

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema LA review of NEXT TO NORMAL at La Mirada.Theatre of the Performing ArtsBut Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal, in its current production at the always-professional La Mirada, absolutely captivated and moved me for almost its entire running time despite Mr. Kitt’s score (under Darryl Archibald’s very faithful music direction), which for me really is the apotheosis of live muzak.  Mr. Yorkey’s Adderol-sharp lyrics and book, the unwonted musical theater premise of a family wracked by mental illness, and the book’s substantial, intensely sober treatment of the material, easily overcame my prejudice against the musical style.  David Lindsay-Abaire’s similarly dark but dramatically unexplored Rabbit Hole left me wondering what point the author had in mind in bringing up an ugly family tragedy.  By comparison Next to Normal infused me with a rush of suspense, fascination, and moral courage.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema LA review of NEXT TO NORMAL at La Mirada.Theatre of the Performing ArtsThe 2010 Pulitzer- and Tony-winning musical presents one of the best-realized American families you’ll see on a stage; it certainly contains the largest slice of credible life I’ve ever seen in a rock musical.  The characters are recognizable but not familiar; the drama is brutal and the choices are fresh.  Mentioning the plot in any way is virtually guaranteed to spoil some valuable surprises; essentially, a mother dotes on her son to the exclusion of her husband and especially her daughter.  Her passion for her firstborn boy initially borders on the creepy, and from there things get bizarre.  Although it deals with devastating traumas and real-life miseries, the show hardly ever veers maudlin.  Every plot point feels earned, and almost every story element seems indispensible.  Except for the energy-dropping choice to hold for applause after nearly every song, Nick DeGruccio’s supercharged direction propels the action relentlessly toward the show’s satisfying, uneasy climax.

Jason Rohrer's Stage and Cinema LA review of NEXT TO NORMAL at La Mirada.Theatre of the Performing ArtsThis show makes no promises about the horrors of an imperfect world; its message is one of resilience rather than victory.  In the age of the feel-good tidy-bow no-intermission issue play, how refreshing to hear from a popular entertainment that you’re just going to have to deal with life.  But oddly, after delivering consistently complex, grown-up material, Mr. Yorkey collaborates with Mr. Kitt to undercut all that honesty with an unconscionable anthem: the finale, “Light.”  “Knowing that the darkest skies will someday see the sun” is a lyric that would be more at home on a recovering alcoholic’s rear bumper.  This number feels like a whole theater turning to its audience, in the calm after sturm und drang, to wink, “Hey, don’t forget: season tickets!”

That said, Mr. DeGruccio assists his journeyman cast through a harrowing 40-number workout, making every performance a standout.  It helps that these are great roles.  Alex Mendoza’s teenager is as awkward and endearing as any boyfriend you’d wish upon your daughter; Keith A. Bearden’s glib, well-meaning shrink is as frustrating as any doctor you’ve ever overpaid.  Eddie Egan’s Number One Son prances and wails like a petulant rock star, the perfect choice to alienate Robert J. Townsend’s heartbreaking, stolid father figure.  As the disaffected Type A daughter, Tessa Grady snarls and grunts just like every 17-year-old you’d like alternately to hug and strangle.  But Bets Malone’s Diana, the charming, funny, “batshit crazy” mother, anchors the story and the production.  It’s a star part inside a well-balanced ensemble piece, and Ms. Malone reaches high and low to pull out a really exciting character.  John Ezell provides a versatile, artistic set on which all these performers pour out their guts.

photos by Michael Lamont

Next To Normal
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
scheduled to end on June 23, 2013
for tickets, call 562-944-9801 or 714-994-6310
or visit  http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill Gold June 4, 2013 at 3:53 pm

How weird…we purposely DON’T hold for applause. Although if the audience claps before I can call the next light cue, I don’t make them feel ‘wrong’ for needing to express their emotions by cutting it off. Glad you appreciated the piece and the performances though, Jason!


Dan June 9, 2013 at 1:00 am

Saw the show tonight and loved it… great cast and production… but I have to agree with Jason about the applause breaks, which far exceed those in the original production and drain both momentum and emotional intensity at key moments. In particular, the applause hold after “It’s Gonna Be Good” – which did not happen in the original because the action continued immediately – seriously diminishes the stunning power of the 30 seconds that immediately follow. It’s a grave mistake.


Jason Rohrer June 5, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Well Jill, not that weird. I think you just cleared it up. My apologies to Mr DeGruccio, as apparently it’s you who’s holding for applause and thereby allowing the audience to dictate the pace of the show.


Tony Frankel June 7, 2013 at 11:06 am

I agree about the unnecessary holds for applause and do believe that Mr. DeGruccio could have eliminated any holds at the end of the numbers if he wanted to (but it also speaks to the musical design of Mr. Kitt’s score). At the performance I attended, all it took was one or two audience members to start a tidal wave of applause after far too many songs. This could have been nipped in the bud from the start.


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