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Next to Normal
Los Altos Stage Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule


Jillian Toby-Cummings
and Mitchell Mosley

Photo by Richard Mayer
The musicals of the 21st century certainly have covered subjects that Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or even Stephen Sondheim either totally avoided or barely scraped the surface of. In 2008, after several workshops over many years and a brief Off-Broadway production, a rewritten Next to Normal was presented at Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage. It hit and dug deep into many topics the Great American Musical had overall been reticent to put on the stage: lifelong mental disease, paralyzing grief, severe depression, drug abuse, the questionable practices of modern psychiatry, and suicide. And yet, this musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt made it to Broadway in 2009, won three Tonys, and became only the eighth musical ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And for all those potentially depressing topics, the musical that deals with their effects on a suburban family is in the end uplifting, hopeful and inspiring even without having a completely happy ending, culminating in one of the most powerful finales ("Light") ever written for a musical, in this reviewer's humble opinion:

"And when the night has finally gone.
And when we see the new day dawn.
We'll wonder how we wandered for so long, so blind.
The wasted world we thought we knew,
The light will make it soon brand new.
So ... let it shine ....
There will be light."

Los Altos Stage Company brings to its stage the story of Diana Goodman's daily fight to cope with life and her family's struggle to cope with her. The intimacy of the Bus Barn arena allows the family's effects of Diana's worsening, bipolar disorder to be acutely felt by those of us only a few feet away from the emotion-packed songs and the oft-tear-laced faces of those singing them. At the same time, there are breakthrough moments when this family experiences a reason to relax, sigh, and smile, enveloping us as an audience with a hope that even facing crises, "When we open up our light, sons and daughters, husbands, wives, can fight that fight ... There will be light" ("Light").

Four members of what the mother introduces as "the perfect loving family" sing in the opening number "Just Another Day" as they each prepare for a daily routine that "only hurts when I breathe/try/think/cry/play/move." For mother, father, son, and daughter, "it's just another day" where "you wish you would be gone, but you'll stay." In that attention-grabbing beginning, with voices lifting individually and collectively, a capsule of what it must be like to be a part of a household where mental illness resides is vividly summarized through just one of the evening's many inspired choices that director Janie Scott makes. When the scene ends with Diana on the floor with bread, cheese and meat spread all around her as she manically tries to make lunch sandwiches, the words transform into a picture that is achingly clear that for the family looking on in stunned, sad silence, "It's just another day."

As Diana, Jillian Toby-Cummings paints a lasting portrait in the audience's future memory banks of what it looks like to walk precariously on a fence between surviving another day with as many brave-faced smiles as possible and succumbing to the recurring vision of a painful loss that has become an unreal, daily reality. When Diana sings "I Miss the Mountains" in a voice that point-blankly describes with no emotional editing the extreme range of feelings she experiences every day, Jillian Toby-Cummings in a voice clear and heartwrenching tells us how much "I miss my life."

For sixteen years, Diana has been in and out of doctors' offices, prescribed bottles of pills by the dozens, only to find herself in a place where "nothing's real." The inability for anyone—family or doctors—truly to understand what she goes through every hour of her day comes out in a voice full of pent-up anger as she sings to her husband, "You Don't Know." Her exhausted frustration of failed prescriptions and advice comes to a head in a half-screaming, fully defiant "Didn't I See This Movie?" when Diana reacts to both her husband and her doctor pushing her to undergo brain and memory-altering shock treatments. The strength of character that Jillian Toby-Cummings portrays as her Diana slowly takes control of her own journey even as the ECT treatments wipe out parts of her past is a tribute to the actor's incredible empathy for what such a traumatic life passage must be like.

Joey McDaniel is the husband Dan who, when we meet him, constantly does all he can to keep a stiff upper lip; smile with an encouraging "we can do this" always implied; and promise repeatedly, stalwartly, "It's gonna be good." He does of course have his own moments of doubt, as he questions in "Who Is Crazy," "Who's crazy, the one who can't cope or maybe, the one who'll still hope." While the actor sometimes over-extends his vocals as he relates his own journey in raised volumes, his delivery is always authentically genuine and compelling. Dan's own scary, lonely experiences of possibly facing a life without his wife after all the hell he has already known is heart-achingly sung in "I've Been" while his persistent hope that somewhere there is "A Light in the Dark" is given optimistic, emotional treatment. Joey McDaniel provides a face and an experience of what it must be like to be the other half of long-term, life-threatening depression; and he does so convincingly and impressively.

Bringing a voice that is the evening's most electrifying and exciting, Ella Ruth Francis is Natalie, the sixteen-year-old daughter who is everything a typical teen is: a roller-coaster of changing emotions, a kid whose focus is often first-and-foremost on herself and her own needs and wants, and a daughter who is often at odds with her parents—especially with a mother who has largely not been there for her for any of her sixteen years of life. Natalie's first escape from a home of "paranoid parents" is into her music and a hope that a Bach recital will propel her to Yale so that "everything else goes away" (from her "Everything Else").

Her second hope comes in meeting a romantically pursuing classmate, Henry, who has been secretly admiring her for much of their school lives together. Anthony Stephens too brings a voice that leaves its distinct mark as he ranges from whisper-soft to trumpeting-loud, often moving into sweet falsetto heights that soar with feeling. The relationship that develops with its own ups and downs between Natalie and Henry is an underlying story thread that has a strong message of the power of having a true friend like Henry whose love endures many bumps and rejections as Natalie navigates living in a family in crisis.

The fourth member of the Goodman family is the older brother of Natalie whose name, Gabe, we do not hear spoken until deep into act two. While Gabe is often present, moving about the family, it is only he and his mom who interact. Gabe seems in a competition with his father to prove to his doting mother that "I Am the One"—the one "who knows you," "who cares," "who's always been there," and "who needs you." As Gabe, Mitchell Mosley sings in a comforting, assuring voice those words to his mother in a duet with his equally entreating father, who also tries to grab his wife's attention that he is "the one."

Gabe is intensely focused on his mother in a protective and possessive kind of way, often crouching on the top ledge of Nathaniel Card's multi-stepped stage as if a tiger about to pounce on anyone who threatens his her. When he sings in a celestially high, soft voice to his mother, "There's a world out there  ... where we can be free, come with me," Gabe lures his grieving mom to a place where he promises she can exist without so much pain in her daily life.

The final member of this fine cast is David Sabre, who also brings an enticing, high tenor voice as he plays the pill-pushing Dr. Fine and the electric shock-prescribing Dr. Madden. The gentle, consoling manner he brings to both belies the devastating powers of each doctor's medical advice, with each focused on lessening Diana's debilitating and dangerous depression with alternatives that come with their own host of demons. For these doctors, for Diana to say, "I don't feel like myself; I mean, I don't feel anything," the medical conclusion is documented as a sighed, "Patient stable."

Pianist Lauren Bevilacqua conducts the five-piece band that contributes to the emotional impact and meaning of the thirty-plus songs and several reprises as much as the singers themselves. That is especially true for the violinist who often intricately intertwines played notes with the sung notes of a soloist (Amie Jan, primary violinist; Pauline Samson, alternate). The lighting designed by Edward Hunter also takes on a key role in enhancing the messages of both lyrics and dialogue through such touches as spotlights creating backdrop shadows that highlight a particular interaction or confrontation. Ken Kilen's sound design of well-placed and realistic effects, Phyllis E. Garland's properties that include Wonder Bread to be scattered and hundreds of pills to be emptied, and Lisa Rozman's costumes that allow teens to be teens and a bipolar mom to live out her extremes all contribute to the overall excellence of the production.

The Goodman family learns and teaches us an important life message in this superb Los Altos Stage Company production of Next to Normal as they sing in the finale, "Light, "The price of love is loss, but still we pay, we love anyway." And even with all of life's clouds, rain, and pain that their song details, together they all stand before us with faces scarred emotionally but still truly radiant, singing in glorious harmony, "When our long night is done, there will be light."

Next to Normal, through June 22, 2019, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. Tickets are available online at losaltosstage.org, Monday - Friday, 3-6 p. in person at the box office, or by calling 650-941-0551.


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