(photos by Jason Jones)
Written by Alina Mae Wilson
Considering how common mental illness is and how many problems are attributed to it, I find it interesting how rarely this subject is dealt with in theater, interesting but not wholly surprising. You see while mental illnesses, symptoms, and treatments are documented (in varying degrees of accuracy and rationality) throughout the world’s history, it is neither beautiful nor glamorous. And since I would imagine a great many individuals would rather watch things that are a bit more enjoyable, musical theater has not really presented mental illness as something to partake in on a Friday night –until now. Next to Normal is a Tony award winning rock musical that deals with all aspects of mental illness, and it does it while having actors belt out some fantastic tunes. Next to Normal is currently being performed at Ovations Performing Arts Center by DCMS Productions, and the stirring plot combined with the gorgeous voices makes this show worth every cent of the admission fee.
Next to Normal centers on a seemingly solid, middle class family named the Goodmans. Each member of the family is struggling, in one way or another, with mother Diana’s delusions and numerous swings between apparent sanity and outright erraticism. For her part, Diana alternates between longing for peace and normalcy and wishing for the rush and elation of her sickness (which does not always feel like a sickness). Throughout the show we are treated to exciting music, convincing acting, and a plot with the potential to frighten most anyone.
The Ovations Performing Arts Center is small and fairly secluded as it’s huddled with other businesses along the side of a street in Laguna Niguel. The title “Ovations” is written on the front of the door, but you definitely need to keep a sharp eye out to spot it. Make sure you arrive with a few minutes to spare. The seating inside is intimate, with the set being made up to resemble the interior of a house: a bed to the right, a bathroom to the left, and a nice little dining room table smack in the middle . It might not be the largest set in the entire world, but every inch of the stage space is owned and utilized with enthusiasm and purpose.
The cast runs, fights, sings, and does everything else one might expect to see in an acclaimed rock musical. Each action is done well and sends us in the audience a precise message about the emotion(s) in the scene.
There is not a single weak link in this chain of performers. I am hard pressed to find a favorite performer because they are all that good. I will say that I love the relationship chemistry between Sarah Shallberger (Natalie) and Ian James (Henry). The progression of their relationship is believable, and James is the epitome of goofy charm as an awkward teenage love interest. Shallberger is sympathetic and pitiable as an overachieving daughter who is a little starved for attention. In contrast, her brother Gabe (played by Dakota Denton) is hardly starved for attention but seems to starve for it anyway. He comes across as a manipulative little “mama’s boy” who thrives on his mother’s sickness. I just want to point out that this is a different take from other productions of Next to Normal, where Gabe is portrayed as something of a “perfect young man”–intelligent, athletic, charming, and would make the perfect date. Here, however, the emphasis is definitely more on how Diana sees him as someone precious who needs to be protected, rather than someone who can help protect her. In case you were wondering, it works. It absolutely works. Speaking of Diana, she is played by Danielle Gauss, who presents a brave woman struggling to combat something she can hardly comprehend. My heart breaks as I remember her desperately clenching her fists together, seemingly in an attempt to defend herself from assailants that exist inside her very mind –or possibly –her very “soul.” Gauss has a beautiful voice, and although a few sound issues occur in the first four minutes of the show or so, you would never be able to tell from Gauss’s grace and poise. Her desperation at times is captivating. Aaron Al-Imam as Dan Goodman and Darren Thomas as Dr. Madden are superb. Both these men are everything someone with an illness would want–a loving partner and a competent doctor. Al-Imam as Dan is kind and sad while Thomas as Dr. Madden (a man whose name is definitely intentional) is someone whose soothing strength should, by all accounts of logic, be able to sail in and save the day. Unfortunately, neither this show nor the actual realities of life are so simple.
Overall this is an excellent show. The acting is heartfelt and sincere, chemistry between the cast members could not be better, and the gorgeous voices of the cast beautifully bring Tom Kitt’s score to life –please go see this show.
Jan 13-14, 20-22 2017
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