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Next to Normal at Spreckels Theater - REVIEW by Harry Duke


Next to Normal at Spreckels Theater
REVIEW by Harry Duke

Spreckels Theatre Company, best known for its large scale productions of classic American musicals, throws a wicked curve at its audience with a remounting of Marin County-based Theatre-at-Large’s 2014 production of Next to Normal. Yes, the writers of this show are American and yes, it’s a musical, but if you come expecting anything close to standard musical theatre fare, you’re in for a bit of a surprise – albeit, a welcome one.

What starts out seemingly as a story of a classic American family soon transforms itself into a biting commentary on society’s attempt to find a pharmacological solution to all of life’s problems – all set to a pulsating rock score.

Alison PeltzTo reveal too many plot details would be a disservice to a potential audience, but allow it to be said that the story centers on a wife and mother (Alison Peltz) whose mental health seems to be slipping away much to the consternation of her husband (Anthony Martinez) and high school-age daughter (Julianne Thompson). The somewhat introverted daughter’s life is further complicated by the entreaties of a self-medicating but seemingly sincere student (RJ Castaneda). The husband wants to do all the right things and seeks help from all the right doctors (Sean O’Brien), whose solutions start with medication and progress to electroconvulsive therapy.  Things get worse, before they get better, before they get worse, before they get… unresolved?  And then there’s their son (Fernando Siu)…

Not quite the basis for a toe tapping, finger snapping musical, eh?  Exactly.  As unconventional a topic for musical theatre as bi-polar behavior would seem to be, Next to Normal explodes on the stage with its anti-traditional subject matter set to a complex ‘rock’ score.  Challenging the audience to listen to 30 to 40 unfamiliar songs (which are not listed in the program, hence the estimation) is a daunting task, but no more daunting than expecting a cast of seven to perform said songs and a quartet of musicians to perform them. 

The Cast of Next to Normal

Musical director Lucas Sherman and his team of musicians (Felicia McFall, Jeff Sherman, Quinten Cohen) combine with an exceptionally talented cast to meet those challenges. There were occasional moments of raggedness, particularly with some of the vocals, but the score is demanding and complicated.  Musicals aren’t easy, folks, and to deal with the depths of emotions at play in this show had to be doubly tough.  Rest assured, this show isn't a complete downer (so to speak.) There are also moments of great comedy, jet black as they may be. Bottom line - this cast, under the direction of Kim Bromley, comes through on all counts.

One might shy away from attending something labeled as complex, demanding, or complicated. Too often we slip easily into the comfortable or soothing as we seek a theatrical escape from the difficulties of the day. Those who seek to be challenged or confronted via theatre don’t usually turn to musicals for that, but Next to Normal provides an audience that opportunity.  How much more provocative can you get than to musically challenge the very foundation of the concept of "mental health" - “What if the wound/ the cut/ the break, was never in my mind, but in my soul?"

Next to Normal provides an emotionally exhausting but artistically invigorating evening of theatre. 

Challenge yourself and attend one of the last three performances of this extraordinary theatrical experience.

Next to Normal

Presented by The Spreckels Theatre Company and Theatre-at-Large

through January 18

Fri/Sat  @ 8pm, Sun@ 2pm

Spreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park

(707) 588-3400

Photos by Sarah Nelson Photography

Harry Duke Live Theater Reviews

CONTACT Harry Duke