Theater Review: NEXT TO NORMAL (Chance Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on February 26, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


The first three times I saw Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal, it never truly floored me. There are many ingredients that validate the 2009 musical’s popularity: it is to be commended for a bold and daring new way of communicating the kind of subject matter that you would expect from Albee or O’Neill rather than musical theater. The story of a family wracked with the seemingly irresolvable dilemma regarding mental illness is told with compassion and honesty in a most compelling manner. As librettist, Yorkey has written tremendously honest dialogue, and there are surprising twists and turns as medical treatment becomes more perplexing than the disease itself. A play about mental illness is daring enough, but to musicalize it and even be partially successful is amazing. To leave us wrecked and uplifted is quite another.

Angie Chavez, Jaylen Baham, Jocelyn A. Brown, and Tym Brown

Turns out the main problems with my previous outings was lack of intimacy and miscasting and sound. In its current production at the always-professional Chance Theater under Matthew McCray‘s sensitive direction, it absolutely captivated and moved me for almost its entire running time. I love Mr. Kitt’s fusion of modernistic rock and old-time Broadway inventiveness (Mozart is used as a background for one character’s lament, just as Beethoven was used as underscoring for Lucy in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown), yet even while admiring his wholly original sound, I still find myself yearning for that one ballad, that one tuneful eleven o’clock number, but it never came (even Burt Bacharach’s 1968 wacky score of Promises, Promises was made all the more palatable with the accessible ballad, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”). Despite Mr. Kitt’s uneven score, Mr. Yorkey’s Adderall-sharp lyrics and his book’s substantial, intensely sober treatment of the material, easily overcame my prejudice against the musical style. Next to Normal infuses me with a rush of suspense, fascination, and moral courage.

Ron Hastings

Under Stephen Hulsey‘s tremendous music direction and dynamic piano, Sho Fujieda‘s drums, Jacob Gonzalez‘s guitars, and Jimmy Beall‘s bass, this teeny-tiny band brought more versatility to the music than did a large orchestra. Thanks to Ryan Brodkin, whose sound design put actors front and center while still allowing us to bask in those amazing orchestrations.

Angie Chavez, Jocelyn A. Brown, and Tym Brown

The 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 indispensable.

Tym Brown

Mr. McCray assists his journeyman cast on Joe Holbrook‘s versatile, turntable set on which all these performers pour out their guts through a harrowing 40-number workout, making every performance a standout as the ensemble propels the action relentlessly toward the show’s satisfying, uneasy climax. It helps that these are great roles. Jared Machado’s teenager is as awkward and endearing as any boyfriend you’d wish upon your daughter; Ron Hastings’ glib, well-meaning shrink is as frustrating as any doctor you’ve ever overpaid. Jaylen Baham’s Number One Son is not only very vulnerable but he prances and wails just like an awkward adolescent, the perfect choice to alienate Tym Brown’s heartbreaking, stolid father figure. What I loved about these actors is they were a little rough around the edges vocally, versus the perfect belters we have to endure on Broadway. An occasional reach for a note or crack or lightness of timbre — depending on the actor — only added to the rawness of the work.

Jocelyn A. Brown

Jocelyn A. Brown’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. Brown reaches high and low to pull out a really exciting character. Gratefully, instead of the rock star performance by boulder-gargling Alice Ripley in the original, we get an authentically legit Broadway-caliber voice, filled with emotion and control.

Jared Machado and Angie Chavez

The surprise of the evening was understudy Jessica James as the disaffected Type A daughter, Natalie, normally played by Angie Chavez. James’s lucid, lovely, lyrical voice is the perfect antidote for the snarling, impatient, disconnected, talented 17-year-old who you’d like alternately to hug and strangle. This is a lesson for audience members who believe seeing an understudy is verboten. I say “Bravo!” to Ms. James.

Jaylen Baham, Jocelyn A. Brown, and Tym Brown

Next to Normal 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 plays, how refreshing to hear from a popular entertainment that you’re just going to have to deal with life.

Jaylen Baham and Jocelyn A. Brown

photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Next to Normal
Chance Theater
Cripe Stage @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center, 5522 E. La Palma in Anaheim
Thu at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8; Sat & Sun at 3
ends on February 27, 2022 EXTENDED to March 6, 2022
for tickets, call 888.455.4212 or visit Chance

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