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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Next to Normal
Nearly Naked Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's review of Rock of Ages


Johnna Watson, Adam Bei, Johanna Carlisle,
and Dave Ray

Photo by Laura Durant
A musical centered on the impact of mental illness on a modern family doesn't exactly seem like the type of show that would achieve much success. Yet Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal, which deals with the misunderstood issue of mental disease, won many awards and had a healthy Broadway run, a national tour, and many regional productions. This moving musical drama, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as several Tony Awards, is receiving a stellar production from Nearly Naked Theatre that features spot-on direction and an exceptional cast that rarely falters.

This completely original show focuses on a very dysfunctional family for whom life is anything but normal. Mom Diana suffers from a list of mental diseases and her illness takes a constant toll on the rest of the family. Her husband Dan is very supportive but Diana's unpredictable behavior makes it difficult for him to help her. Their two children Gabe and Natalie are very much a constant reminder to Diana of how she wasn't, and still isn't, able to accurately help and support them. The plot centers on the various treatments that Diana seeks in order to improve her life and strengthen her relationships with her family members while also tackling emotional scars from her past.

KItt's music is pop/rock with shifting styles that play off the constantly changing thoughts in Diana's brain and themes and melodies that are weaved throughout along with many musical hooks that will stay with you. Yorkey's book and lyrics treat the subject matter and the characters with much care, but he also interjects plenty of humor throughout. The duo won a 2009 Tony Award for the show's impressive score.

Director Damon Dering is just as respectful of the material and characters as the show's creators and he has found a cast that deliver rich, moving and realistic portrayals. As Diana, Johanna Carlisle stunningly captures the difficult predicament of this emotionally scared, confused and frightened woman. Carlisle's portrayal is constantly changing in realistic ways based on whether or not Diana is medicated at that point in the story. When Diana undergoes a treatment at the end of the first act that changes her perception, Carlisle's portrayal shifts again to superbly show how that operation has a new and lasting impact on Diana. Her earthy, full-forced deliver of the score is impressive. On a few top notes, her vocals may be a little frayed and occasionally unsteady, but that actually plays into Diana's ragged and unbalanced character. Carlisle's delivery of "I Miss the Mountains," in which Diana lets her feelings out about the impact of her prescriptions, is poignant and direct while her emotional cry for understanding, "You Don't Know," is powerful and gut wrenching. It is an exceptionally moving, rich and raw performance, as is every other one in this extremely gifted cast.

Dave Ray instills Dan with a sense of compassion along with a loyal support and deep love for his wife and family, even as he endures the many highs and lows of what that requires. We see in Ray's soulful, caring eyes and gentle behavior the love that he feels for his wife, but we also fully understand the toll that Diana's illness has taken on Dan. Ray's scenes with Carlisle are emotionally delivered and raw yet never lose the sense of realism. His vocal abilities are excellent with a nice emotional delivery of his solos, especially "I've Been," in which he accounts for what life has been like dealing with Diana and her illness, and the soft spoken, yet strikingly effective, "He's Not Here."

As Natalie, Johnna Watson, at only 16, is delivering the type of performance someone with years of experience would achieve. She doesn't make one false move in making us understand why Natalie is seeking love and assurance that everything will be OK, along with the desire to find something to take her pain and suffering away as well. As her brother Gabe, Adam Bei has the somewhat difficult job of being different things to different people. Gabe has a deep, emotional connection with Diana but a barely-there relationship with both his father and his sister. Bei manages his way through all of these roles with ease, and the bond he has with Carlisle is intense and effectively staged by Dering. Once certain plot elements are revealed, that connection makes even more sense. Both Watson and Bei's vocals are excellent with roof-raising, sustained and soaring notes throughout.

Vincent Pugliese has perfect chemistry with Watson, as Henry, the stoner boy who falls for Natalie, and delivers an endearing performance that you root for. His sweet performance of "Perfect for You" is charming with attractive vocals, and the end result is an all-around winning and natural portrayal. Brett Aiken plays two doctors who treat Diana and provides a few moments of comic relief as well as a direct, soft spoken and realistic delivery of his dialogue and impressive vocals, especially in "Open Your Eyes," that all adds up to a compelling performance.

Dering's direction is clear, concise and focused, with excellent use of the multi-layered set and constant movement that plays both into and off of the changing musical styles and the shifting ideas and beliefs of the characters. There is a plot element toward the end of the show that on Broadway I thought came a little out of nowhere but Dering has managed to foreshadow this moment and the way his cast interacts with each other so that it doesn't seem forced. Curtis Moeller's music direction achieves stellar sounds from the superb six-piece band and the cast.

Creative elements are well done, with Dering and Aiken's multi-layered set design allowing for various playing areas and the wise yet playful use of oversized pill bottles in the design. The giant pill bottle top is incorporated very well into the staging of many scenes. Carolyn McBurney's costumes are perfect, specifically representing each character and their moods and feelings, including bright and colorful costumes that tie into the uplifting end of the show, while Clare Burnett's ever-shifting lighting design provides changing swashes of color and areas of shadow. On opening night there were several times when the character speaking or singing wasn't clearly in the light and I'm not certain if that was a directorial decision, since part of the show centers on finding the light, or just a few missed cues.

Next to Normal is a roller coaster ride of a musical that deals with the very much misunderstood and uncomfortable issue of mental illness. It is a very thoughtful, realistic and moving show that treats that issue with respect. If you've had personal knowledge of the struggles those with mental illness face you may find this show a cathartic experience and if you haven't had any experience you will most likely have a better understanding of the issues those with it, and those around it, face. With focused direction and a transfixing cast, Nearly Naked Theatre's production is a stunning achievement.

Next to Normal runs through June 25th, 2016, with performances at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling (602) 254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org.

Director: Damon Dering
Music Director: Curtis Moeller
Stage Manager: Kenneth Anthony
Scenic Design: Damon Dering and Brett Aiken
Lighting Design: Clare Burnett
Costume Design: Carolyn McBurney
Properties Design: Jay Templeton & Ralph Roberts
Hair & Make-Up Design: Damon Dering

Cast:
Diana: Johanna Carlisle
Gabe: Adam Bei
Dan: Dave Ray
Natalie: Johnna Watson
Henry: Vincent Pugliese
Doctor Fine/Doctor Madden: Brett Aiken


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