‘NEXT TO NORMAL’ OPENS THE NEW PERFORMING ARTS SYSTEM PLAYERS, WITH A SERIOUS POWERFUL PRODUCTION
THE GOODMAN FAMILY STRUGGLES TO BE NORMAL IN THIS TONY WINNING MUSICAL THAT CHALLENGES MENTAL HEALTH AND LOVE FOR FAMILY
The Performing Arts System opened its inaugural season and its first musical with Tony winner NEXT TO NORMAL. The sharp moving musical is now on stage at the Poison Apple Playhouse in Martinez Ca, only through June 18th. Managing artistic director Enrico Banson said “This is an artist-driven theater company, that wants to bring visceral, engaging and magical storytelling experiences for audiences in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area.” Director Maria Calderazzo explained why she helped to create PAS “We recently grieved the loss of a talented colleague who lost his battle with depression. With a rapidly changing world in the background, we found truth and catharsis in the story of the Goodman family. Sometimes all it takes is the right material with the right people at the right time. And we were lucky enough to have all of those things. The rest, as they say, is history.”
NEXT TO NORMAL, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, is a unique musical which addresses loss, death, suicide, drug usage, and the ethics of modern psychiatry. It won three 2009 Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Pulitzer Board credited the show with “expanding the scope of subject matter for musicals.” Calderazzo brought together a talented stunning cast of pros to launch PAS’ first fully stage show. A musical about mental illness might not seem the path to follow for a local company inaugural show but this Award-winning show that just opened at the black box stage at the Poison Apple Play house in Martinez Ca provides all the basic ingredients. The performers, under the direction of Calderazzo, have boldly brought this show to life. NEXT TO NORMAL is one of the best of a new generation of musicals that address difficult issues and ask tough questions.
The small cast includes the marvelous Jennifer Stark as Diana Goodman, a suburban American housewife, who has been diagnosed as having a form of bipolar disorder coupled with what might be schizophrenia. Stark is compelling in her first song “Who’s Crazy”, backed up by Aaron Tan’s five person band that keeps the talented cast on cue. The Goodman family includes daughter, Natalie, played by the capable Ashley Dionne, Mr Dan Goodman is played by the pro, Perry Aliado, who is the vet of this cast having played the same role in many other local productions. The charismatic Kamren Mahaney plays their son Gabe who leads the family in the opening rousing number “Just Another Day”.
Together the family, struggles to keep their home on some sort of “normal” path. Maybe not normal, but “next to normal.” The singing voices are terrific, the acting is high quality, and the pacing is excellent; the show’s subtext shines clearly. Dionne has a strong presence throughout, whether in duet with her smitten stoner boyfriend, Henry, played by the venerable Scottie Tsubota, who sings such gems as the witty “Perfect For You” or matched up with Dionne in the unsettling moment of “Maybe (Next to Normal).” Dionne creates a Natalie who is a confused, angry teenager, desperate for love and acceptance. Her voice is strong and her overall song interpretation is fully realized. Tsubota also scores well, and has a keen voice and supurb acting.
Wearing many hats for his opening show the provocative Enrico Banson rounded out the cast playing two doctors, one a laugh-inducing “Rock Star” and a concerned therapist. He excelled with the others in the ensemble number “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling,” where they brought their voices in and out of harmony to striking effect.
Stark in the lead role is thoroughly convincing as a middle-class wife and mother who feels only half alive. She says “the year of too much lithium”. Her singing showed great dynamic range as required by numbers that took her from intimate reflection to soaring declarations. She sings “I Miss the Mountains” as her character is dealt an achingly mix of pharmacological cocktail her doctor had prescribed. Making her a real person with overwhelming psychological issues. Her singing voice is strong, her lyric interpretations excellent and she stops the show in “So Anyway”.
Kamren Mahaney’s ambiguous character Gabe menaces Diana, offering her extreme solutions. He is intense with his moving songs and several attention-grabbing vocals, as in the show stopping “I’m Alive” and the deep “There’s a World.” Mahaney’s vibrant and stunning presence as the son, especially in “Aftershocks” both chills and attracts. Mahaney is on his way to becoming an in demand Bay Area actor; he displays a strong singing voice and totally inhabits the role of Gabe. With his boyish good looks and performance abilities he is Broadway ready.
Perry Aliado is impressive as the emotionally stifled, yet well meaning Dan, Diana’s husband. He has a fine voice and sings meanings not just words, thus creating dialogue out of lyrics especially in his solo “He’s Not Here”. Aliado poignantly shows the desperation of a man trying to hold his family together. His touching rendition on “Better Than Before” effectively mixes hopes and fears. Rachel Kennealy’s choreography generally worked and helped propel story exposition and mood but was a bit repetitive in the convulsive therapy segment. Director Calderazzo has the players populate the multilevel simple set that brings this family drama right to your seat, even if you are in the back row.
Highlights from Tom Kitt’s and Brian Yorkey’s powerful songs include “It's Gonna Be Good,” “I’ve Been” “How Could I Ever Forget,” “It’s Gonna Be Good,” and “Song of Forgetting” also performed well by the backstage band with Aaron Tan, Sherry Chiang, Jerica Banson, Gina Pietschet. The musical brings up many questions, usually presented in a play, rather than musical form.
NEXT TO NORMAL has been recognized internationally as a great musical for addressing important issues regarding mental health, its treatments and consequences in a highly creative and unflinching way. But it takes a strong passionate production such as The Performing Arts System version that fully reveals the power and touching beauty of NEXT TO NORMAL. Welcome PAS to Bay Area Theatre, their next production is MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING winter of 2018.
The Performing Arts System Presents
Its inaugural Production
NEXT TO NORMAL
Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Maria Calderazzo
Produced by Enrico Banson
Perry Aliado, Enrico Banson, Jennifer Stark, Kamren Mahaney,
Scottie Tsubota, and Ashley Dionne
Must Close June 18th
Poison Apple Playhouse
835 Arnold Dr
Martinez, California, CA 94553
Running Time Two Hours with one intermission
PHOTO'S by Jerianne Banson
Banson and Calderazzo quote courtesy
Donna Beth Weilenman