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Tom Kitt (Music) and Brian Yorkey (Book & Lyrics) created a mesmerizing and next to perfect contemporary rock musical that debuted off-Broadway in 2008 and went on to earn a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for being a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.

The musical will constantly tug at your heart strings and make you rethink your thoughts about family dynamics, marriage, griefdrug abusemodern psychiatry, suburban life, the pressure of perfection, and mental illness. Yes, all that plus more in 2 1/2 hours that fly by so fast you’ll be double checking your watch or smartphone at the end of each act.

Without giving away any spoilers, high praise for Corey Lynn Howe‘s sympathetic and yet honest direction. Howe takes advantage of the intimacy of Hillcrest Art’s black box theatre to draw the audience into the Goodman family’s dysfunction and heartache. No longer is the audience sitting back as indifferent spectators but rather we feel like invited guests at the infamous dinner scene sitting within spitting distance from the main players. Her unflinching direction allows the audience to feel “with [the Goodmans] everything all at once.” Thankfully Shara Abvabi‘s lighting design is similarly subtle in comparison to the original Broadway/National Tour design by Kevin Adams and compliments Howe’s intimate direction. Katie Sikkema (Costumer) scored high points with the shoe choices. Yes, shoes! Natalie and her boyfriend Henry have complimentary shoes as do Dan and Gabe hinting at their connections even at times before the audience is made aware.

Michelle Lane as Diana.

The six person cast led by Michelle Lane (who was recently in Pico Playhouse’s 2016 production) is extremely strong vocally and benefit from Howe’s unflinching direction that emphasizes the parallels/connections between characters and their underlining insecurities that come to the surface. In this intimate production it is not all about Diana but actually an ensemble piece where everyone from Henry to Dan to Diana shines equally. As Howe says in her directors’ note this is about family. Family is “next to normal” and yet this cast is next to perfection! 

 Daniel Bellusci , Julia Lester, Renee Cohen, Landen Starkman, Brent Ramirez, and Michelle Lane (Photo by Paul Cranmer)

I don’t know quite what to make of Renee Cohen‘s solid performance as Drs. Madden and Fine. What precisely does she bring to the role that a man wouldn’t? Hmm… Daniel Bellusi, whose adorable Hey will likely bring a smile to your face every time, will have many teenagers and young adults hoping they too will find a Henry. Julia Lester, playing against type, does a fabulous job of conveying all the turmoil Natalie is going through and could easily be the cause of a moist eye or two in the audience with her 2nd act duet “Hey #3/Perfect for You (Reprise)”. Landen Starkman‘s “I’m Alive” is entertaining and his duet “I Dreamed a Dance” will have fans of Elisabeth the German musical comparing him to Tod (Death). I have always believed that Dan is one of the most romantic male leads and Brent Ramirez‘ unwavering performance as “the man [who] still remembers his vow” is raw and powerful. And when he finally must face the ghost of the past — eh gads! Tissues, please? And what for Michelle Lane‘s powerful performance as central character Diana? Lane’s Diana is raw, energetic, focused and all together riveting.

Julia Lester, Daniel Bellusci (photo by Paul Cranmer)

So what are you waiting for? If you have yet to see Next to Normal in person, this is your perfect opportunity! Playing for three weekends through the 17th of June, Panic! ProductionsNext to Normal is all things spectacular and feeling. Unfortunately the strong language (countless F words and several uses of the Lord’s name in vain) and subject matter makes this a questionable choice for a family day out but teens and adults will doubtlessly find the show riveting from start to finish. And huge props to Jan Roper and the minimal band (off stage) for pumping live music into the theatre.

Interface Family Services, sponsor of Next to Normal, wants everyone to know that if you are in need you can call 2-1-1 and speak to someone 24/7.

Disclaimer: I had my ticket comped for review purposes but all opinions are my own.