by Lorie Lewis Ham
Check out video interviews with some of the cast at the end of this review!
Over the past few weeks I have had the pleasure of seeing here in the Valley the productions of three Tony Award winning and incredible musicals! One of those was Next To Normal presented by StageWorks Fresno. I had seen this show before presented by a touring company in San Jose with some of the original Broadway cast, so I was very excited to see it again.Next To Normal is not one of those uplifting, feel good shows that has you walking out of the theatre whistling a happy tune–instead it is dark, deep and powerful and has you walking out changed forever. The story is that of a woman who is struggling with a severe case of bipolar disorder and how it is affecting her life, and that of her family. She goes through all sorts of different treatments to battle this disease with varying degrees of success and failure. Other subjects dealt with in this show include suicide, grief, drug abuse and ethics in modern psychiatry.
This is a rock musical and not only are the songs moving, but they are also wonderful, and the StageWorks cast performed them brilliantly. A favorite song and the one that most sticks in my head is “Superboy and the Invisible Girl”, and the song “Perfect For You” is so touching I nearly cried. The band who accompanied them was conducted by Anthony Taylor and featured the haunting violin of Matt Mazei–both of whom we also enjoyed when we saw Spring Awakening.
I definitely preferred Melinda Parrett’s performance as the mother Diana over the actress from the Broadway cast–not only does she have a more appealing voice, but she took you right inside the struggles of this troubled character and even provided a little humor along the way. Joel Abels, who is also artistic director of StageWorks, played the father Dan and this was the first time I had ever seen him act–I had no idea he had such a beautiful voice. Playing the daughter Natalie, is Joel’s daughter Taylor Abels who never fails to impress, and playing the son was Daniel Rodriguez whom I enjoyed seeing last summer in Glory Days–he too did an excellent job with this difficult music. The small cast is completed by Adam Schroeder playing Diana’s psychiatrist and Aaron Bolinger playing Natalie’s stoner boyfriend Henry.
My life has been touched more than once by bipolar disorder and the havoc it has the potential to wreak on the life of the individual and those who love them, so I can tell you that this portrayal is very accurate and very moving. While Diana’s case is an extreme one, and it would be easy to leave the show feeling discouraged by her battle with this disease, one must look beyond the surface and be encouraged not only by her unwillingness in the end to give up, but also by the love and dedication of her family and the bit of hope we are left in the end. And keep in mind that Diana is struggling with more mental health issues than just bipolar disorder. This StageWorks cast did a brilliant job of portraying every emotion and struggle, while also giving the audience a wonderful musical experience. I can only imagine how emotionally spent they must be at the end of each performance.
StageWorks Fresno never disappoints–their productions are always top quality. Do not miss this show, but keep in mind the dark subject matter and that there is some strong language. This is not a show to take your kids to, but it is one you yourself should not miss. Next To Normal will move you, make you laugh, and possibly even make you cry.
Next to Normal is on stage through July 29 at the Dan Pessano Theatre in Fresno. Tickets can be purchased on their website and more info is also available on the KRL local theatre event page where you will also find info on more current local shows.
Interview with Joel Abels:
Interview with Taylor Abels:
Check out more local theatre video interviews on our YouTube channel.
Editors Note: If you or someone you love suffers from bipolar disorder, or thinks that they might, please check out the International Bipolar Association, an incredible source of information and help. Also, check out KRL’s Mental Health Matters section & keep up with events and campaigns on the International Bipolar KRL event page. With the proper treatment and lifestyle changes, most people with bipolar disorder can live a perfectly normal life. Without help, the results can potentially be disastrous.