‘Next To Normal’ at Pinole Players succeeds admirably as a chamber musical

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 3/5 » Recommended)

(“Next To Normal” plays at Pinole Community Players from February 1 through February 16.)

Brian Yorky and Tom Kitt’s “Next To Normal” is a distinguished work of musical theatre, well crafted and, in the modern manner, addressing a complex emotional subject, a mother’s horrific experience of mental illness and its effect on her family. When it opened on Broadway in 2008 it was nominated for eleven Tony awards and won three. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Bay area audiences have had a chance to see celebrated productions by both the Broadway touring company and San Jose Repertory Theatre. To find a production at a relatively small community theatre in the East Bay is an unexpected, but most welcome, surprise.

(from l to r) Alex Bronte as Dan, Lisa-Marie Newton as Diana and Brian Dauglash as Gabe in "Next To Normal". Photo credit: Pinole Community Players.
(from l to r) Alex Bronte as Dan, Lisa-Marie Newton as Diana and Brian Dauglash as Gabe in “Next To Normal”. Photo credit: Pinole Community Players.

In the view of ‘Next To Normal’ director Brian Katz, Pinole Community Players is a first-rate semi-professional theatre poised to move up in the theatrical hierarchy. He was not surprised to find that they were given permission to stage the first amateur production of ‘Next To Normal’ in the Bay area. He jumped at the chance to direct because he felt the piece would be well-served as a small theatre piece, a chamber musical, rather than a full scale Broadway type extravaganza. In a program note he tells us that when he saw the show on Broadway, he felt “that this musical was really a small theatre piece trapped on a Broadway stage.” The current production works beautifully on that level, and is well worth seeing.

First off, an excellent band of musicians, under the more than capable musical direction of Dean Starnes, serves the score beautifully and Maxx Kurzunski’s light and sound designs are technically impeccable.

The dedicated amateur performers bring extensive experience to their roles, sing and move well, and handle the emotional arc of the drama adeptly. If the cast is not entirely up to the standards of a Broadway tour or professional regional production, there is much gained by the intimacy of the venue and there are moments that are deeply moving.

As Diana, Lisa Maria Newton is believable in showing us the ravages of bipolar disorder, portraying both the ecstatic highs and the frightening lows. As her husband Dan, Alex Bonte sings exceptionally well. Nicolina Akraboff (an actress with the unusual credit of a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT) is utterly convincing as their hyper overachieving daughter.

The production features two outstanding performances from Perry Allidao as a sympathetic doctor and, especially, Brian Dauglash as Dan and Diana’s son Gabe, whose story includes a surprising secret that won’t be revealed here. Perry Alliado brings depth and variety to his characterization of Doctor Madden, a character which could easily be reduced to stereotype. Dauglash’s Gabe very nearly steals the show with a thrilling performance of the anthemic “I’m Alive”.

For further information, click here.

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“Next To Normal”, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Music by Tom Kitt, produced by Pinole Community Players. Director: Brian Katz. Set Designer: Fernando Ochoa. Light and Sound Designer: Maxx Kurzunski. Costume Designer: Janet O’Brien. Musical Director: Dean Starnes.

Diana: Lisa-Marie Newton. Dan: Alex Bronte. Natalie: Nicolina Akraboff. Gabe: Brian Dauglash. Doctors Madden and Fine: Perry Aliado. Henry: Michael Scott-Wells.

Musicians:

Conductor/Synthesizer: Dean Starnes. Bass: Vince Lucchesi. Drums: Patty De Vea. Guitar: Roland Seyn. Cello: Joshua Mikus-Mahoney.

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