Theater Review: Next to Normal at Hillcrest Center for the Arts

Cast (L-R): Daniel Bellusci , Julia Lester, Renee Cohen, Landen Starkman, Brent Ramirez, and Michelle Lane (Center). Photograph by Paul Cranmer.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical “Next to Normal” examines the courageous and heartbreaking life of a family living with their mom’s chronic mental illness. The musical, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, also won three Tony Awards and is now playing at Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks for a limited run until June 17, 2018.

This ambitious production from Panic Productions is an emotional roller coaster ride from start to finish with beautiful and touching songs. It is gritty, real and complex. Well-directed by Corey Lynn Howe, Next to Normal is profound, heartbreaking, haunting and powerful. I recommend it for ages 16 and up because the story is so dark, and is laced with profanity and some sexual situations. The very moving subject manner is graphic and emotional. This one is a real tear-jerker.

The very talented cast all sing and perform beautifully “Next to Normal” features over 35 songs with top-notch musical direction from Jan Roper. I enjoyed all of the musical numbers, but standouts from act one were “Just Another Day,” “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist,” and “I, Perfect for You,” “I Miss the Mountains,” “It’s Gonna Be Good,” and “I’m Alive.”

From act two,  “Wish I Were Here,” “Song of Forgetting,” “Better Than Before,” “How Could I Forget?,” “Why Stay?/A Promise,” and the finale, “Light,” were memorable.

Super singer and actress Michelle Lane stars as Diana, the good-natured, well-intentioned matriarch of the family struggling with mental illness and she is wonderful.  Her patient, supportive loving husband Dan, played by gifted vocalist and actor Brent Ramirez is a saint, having stood by her side through thick and thin. Diana’s high spirited teenage dream son Gabe, played by talented singer and actor Landen Starkman, is the apple of her eye.  while her teenage daughter Natalie, well played by talented singer and actress Julia Lester, suffers in feeling like the invisible child next to him.  Likable stoner schoolmate Henry, played by strong vocalist and actor Daniel Bellusci, becomes her first love. Talented vocalist and actress Renee Cohen rounds out the cast playing two of the many well-meaning doctors who treat her with care and flair.

Something very traumatic happened years ago that triggered Diana’s illness, and this intense story examines the journey of a loving well-intentioned very ill woman and her family.

“Next to Normal” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., at the Hillcrest Center for the Arts in Thousand Oaks.  Call (805) 381-1246 or visit www.panicproductions.org for more information.

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