Review: ‘Next To Normal’ at Custom Made Theatre Company (****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: *****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Next To Normal” plays at Custom Made Theatre Company from September 13 through October 13, 2013.)

When Custom Made’s artistic director, Brian Katz, first saw ” Next To Normal” in New York, he thought immediately he would like to produce it as a chamber musical at Custom Made, believing that the intimate family story would work well in a small venue. He was right.

In fact, the current production is Katz’ second. He first presented an excellent community theatre production earlier this year with Pinole Community Players. For Custom Made, the wonderful Lisa-Marie Newton has reprised her outstanding performance as Diana, a Mom who lives with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

Set designer Erik LaDue and lightning designer Maxx Kurzunksi have build and lit a superb set to evoke  Diana’s household. A scaffolding establishes the back of the house upstage, designed to be climbed on, so that many of the characters are at times literally “climbing the walls”. One panel of this scaffolding consists of a realistic medicine cabinet that becomes a virtual character as Diana struggles whether or not to take her prescribed medication. Kurzunksi’s light design features patches of light that spill onto the stage like shattered glass. Every detail of the set and lighting is a metaphorical comment on the experience of mental illness, and adds considerably to the overall effectiveness of this production.  The musical direction and chamber orchestra are also excellent.

Lisa-Marie Newton as Diana struggles with her feelings about taking pills for her bipolar disorder in "Next To Normal". Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
Lisa-Marie Newton as Diana struggles with her feelings about taking pills for her bipolar disorder in “Next To Normal”. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

But it is the performances that matter most. Lisa-Marie Newton sings beautifully and convincingly portrays both the confusion and ecstasy that is bipolar illness. As her very faithful husband, LaMont Ridgell is particularly outstanding. A fine singer, Ridgell goes way beyond singing well in this part, bringing great emotional range and depth of acting overall. When he asserts that he is hurting, too, it comes from a great well of history and feeling, something much more than a statement of the obvious.

As the angry daughter, trying to keep herself together by achieving academic perfection, Alameda high school senior Mackenzie Cala makes a distinguished debut with Custom Made. She hopes to pursue a career as an actress and no doubt she will. As her boyfriend Henry, Jordon Bridges gives his first Bay Area performance and it is charming. He captures the kindness and confusion of adolescence.  Danny Gould as Gabe, the son with a mysterious secret, haunts the edges of this production with suitable intensity. Perry Aliado reprises his dual role as Doctors Fine and Madden, fleshing out characters who might be merely stereotypes in less capable hands.

This is a show that everyone can appreciate, but anybody who has direct experience in living with mental illness will find it especially moving.

For further information, click here.

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“Next To Normal”, Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Music by Tom Kitt, produced by Custommade Theatre Company. Director: Brian Katz. Musical Director: Armando Fox. Set Design: Erik LaDue. Lighting Design: Maxx Kurzunski. Costume Design: JesSokolowski. Sound Design: Cole Ferraiulo. Choreography: Daunielle Rasmussen. Props Design: Maria Calderazzo. 

Cast:

Diana: Lisa-Marie Newton. Gabe: Danny Gould. Dan: LaMont Ridgell. Natalie: MacKenzie Cala. Henry: Jordon Bridges. Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden: Perry Aliado.

Band:

Piano/Conductor: Armando Fox/Mark Dietrich. Drums: Roberta Drake/Randy Hood. Cello: Cindy Hickox/Patrice Young. Violin: Josh Cohen. Guitar: James Grady. Double Bass: Colin Williams.

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