A triumph! Directed by Ruth Mandsager with musical direction from Jim Martinez, this show has all the “feels” Ruth and Jim want you to experience but it also has something many musicals these days don’t. Emotional engagement.
This show is about mental illness and how one family copes with it in their separate and collective ways supported with original rock music and lyrics. Although, it comes with a trigger warning for those sensitive to mental illness, suicide, drug abuse, and loss themes and offers talk backs with the cast and director after Sunday matinees, it doesn’t need to. In fact, doing so may keep the very people who NEED to experience this show away. It isn’t a generic one size fits all story about mental illness nor is it trying to be. This topic is so grand and reaches so far, it would be impossible; however, Next To Normal brings us very close to understanding a glimpse of what people might be going through.
Diana, double cast with Bryony DuPont and Jocelyn Eisenlohr, is a mother struggling with Bipolar Disorder and a treatment plan which no longer works. Diana tries to be all and do all but nothing is ever very good. She isn’t happy with her life, she knows it isn’t working, but what can she do? A powerful and meaty female role for a musical as it gives so many opportunities for an actress to shine greater than just a singer. Byrony is a perfect example. I’ve seen her perform many times and right along side her in Les Miserables. I know she has the vocal chops. This show lets the audience and community know she can act, too. (She’s also super smart but it shouldn’t surprise you.)Bryony has a full bodied smoky tone which works for this type of rock musical. It adapts well in the many emotional stages the play takes you. Both do well with “I Miss The Mountains” reminscing about the past. Jocelyn Eisenlohr as Diana brings a slightly more aware presence to Diana, which is to say, maybe a bit of thinking while performing… (I do it myself. I’m working on breaking the habit...) Her voice is higher pitched and thinner, more refined and structured, which I liked very much; although, in my mind, I hear her better suited in classic musical theatre (like Les Mis!) than a rock musical like this. She broke my heart a few times when she did let go in the moments interacting with her son Gabe. She is a fierce actress who has an acting class coming up at The Majestic…if you’re thinking of elevating your game, you’ll do it with her for sure 🙂
Dan, double cast with AJ Millet and Colin Salisbury, is Diana’s husband. Dan does his best as a husband coping with his wife and her disorder as well as a father trying to keep his family together. A good role with great opportunities; however, I found it interesting the playwright made Dan wait until near the end to get the help HE needs and needed. He experiences the same loss as Diana but maybe because he held it in better, people thought he was okay? AJ Millet is sweet and vulnerable and funny as well as sincere and honestly heartbroken. AJ has done an amazing job bringing life to his role and should be very proud. Both are touching and vocally naked in “He’s Not Here” and “A Promise” with a softness and sincerity required considering the content of each song. Colin Salisbury…what a treat! He brought tears to my eyes in his moment with Gabe. So powerful, I cannot express how real that moment felt from my seat way back in row J. Colin returns to the stage after some time away doing tech and I’m so glad he chose to do it with this show. He has amazing emotional range and his reaction to Diana during “So Anyway” was heart breaking.
Natalie Goodman, played by Jasmin Nicole, is the over-achieving teenage daughter of Dan and Diana. She has to be if she wants any attention. Jasmine does well in this role bringing the confidence with her vocal chops and stretching into a more well-rounded character. Natalie meets Henry, played by Donovan Cassell, and after a bit of “Hey, you gotta loosen up a little” nudging, they begin dating. Henry is the one person she can confide in and learn to be human. After she takes the loosening up a bit too far, their relationship hits a snag. Donovan is as sweet as the munchies eaten after smokin’ a bowl (you’ll know what this means after seeing the show). His thoughtfulness in his falsetto melts you away making you root for more. He genuinely connects with Jasmin during “Hey” and “Perfect For You” with such sincerity we’re relieved when their characters reconnect.
Gabe Goodman, played by Cailin Mackenzie, is the son of Dan and Diana and such a focus in Diana’s life, she makes life decisions based on their conversations. Cailin is fluid, ethereal, and sad as Gabe. A haunting role. A vocally challenging role, Cailin masterfully navigates the vocal acrobatics as well as he flips around on the set. His role is dangerous in a way. Gabe is a reminder of moments, people, and things past our minds aren’t ready or willing to let go of in “I’m Alive” and intoxicating in “There’s a World”. He’s so a part of Diana, he makes it okay for her to “be with him”. That scene was so well written and performed, it validated, or maybe explained in a way, why some may attempt suicide even when they really don’t want to die. The cast sings “He’s not here” but he is. He’s everywhere and nowhere.
Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, played by Ted deChatelet, are the two doctors Diana sees for treatment. Dr. Fine method of using Diana as a guinea pig for medications to see what works until she doesn’t “feel anything” responding with “patient- stable” had audience members grumble in their seats. This is a doctor too many have experience with. Dr. Madden, on the other hand, tries to meet Diana where she is with her illness and treat her using methods Diana is comfortable with until a suicide attempt demands something stronger. (cue: electric shock therapy) Ted plays both parts well and gives each role a distinct character. As Dr. Madden; however, he really gets to be more than a doctor, he gets to be a confidant, an advocate, and someone who feels for his patient. So often when people experience loss, they’re given a timeline of how long their grief is considered to be normal which is ridiculous because everyone grieves differently. While we want to work through the grief of losing someone, we also don’t want to be consumed by it. It’s hard to know when to take the next step. In “Make Up Your Mind”, Dr. Madden fights for Diana’s momentary reprieve but like many of us on that side of the relationship, it often comes too late.
This is Ruth’s third show as a director at The Majestic. (You may have seen The Full Monty or Catch Me If You Can?) She is a veteran of the stage as she performs around the Willamette Valley and holds a degree in theatre arts. Ruth brings her experience as a performer and the quest for an audience experience akin to Broadway, or other venues where performers are paid, because dammit theatre is awesome and just because it’s community theatre made up of community volunteer performers it isn’t an excuse to suck! I love her. She thinks ahead to what people want to see and what she wants to direct to challenge herself and have a purpose at the same time.
Jim Martinez is…well, amazing at what he does. He brings together the best musicians for every show he’s involved in. His love for musical theatre shows in his ability to work in any genre and any size cast. As someone who has worked on shows with him, he’s thoughtful, respectful, and professional. Someday, I hope to have him work on one of my musicals…Jim Davidson is the vocal director on this production and I’m sure he’s extremely thankful for the cast of amazing performers he got to work with in this show. It’s a powerhouse book built for performers with a range of vocal talent as well as acting range. He brought full bodied vocals out of the cast and the audience will love him for it.
From a tech perspective, the set was super cool as a two-story house doubling as an acrobat’s playground. With just enough set pieces to give reference, it gave the cast a place for their energy. The orchestra, or band rather, was positioned on stage, which I like. It’s there but it doesn’t pull focus. Lighting was well done with the challenges of having full sides on the set structure. The use of varying color for emotional impact worked well but didn’t spoon feed the feels. Performance mics are a necessary evil and I was a bit concerned at first with the opening “Just Another Day” being super loud. (Maybe I should’ve grabbed the ear plugs provided in the lobby?) But it evened out quickly and all was right in the world. One thing I didn’t care for was the overlapping vocals. I don’t mind the ones where multiple cast sing the same words, obviously. I’m talking about the five different narrative all being sung at full volume so all I hear is vocal mumbo jumbo instead of the message. I realize it was written this way but maybe if the writer had used it a little less frequently, it would have more of a positive impact than an annoying one.
This show runs the gamut of emotion from laughter to anger to sadness. It reminds me of loss and how often we walk around saying “fine” with a smile when we aren’t really that fine. See it with someone you love, or even like, but see it and talk about it. The more we talk about it, the less scary it is. As my mom says, the more she talks to me about her thoughts, the less power they have over her. So keep talking people and if you don’t have anyone to talk to, then talk to me. I’ve been told I’m a good listener who doesn’t judge much. And if not to me, then reach out to someone safe like these folks:
Crisis Text Line: Text Oregon to 741741 for confidential free help 24/7
Benton County Mental Health Crisis Number: 541-766-6844
The Trevor Project for LGBTQ+ youth: 1-866-488-7386
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text “273TALK” to 839863
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