Union Tribune Review – Next To Normal
Review: Malone rocks in ‘Next to Normal’
San Diego Musical Theatre production has strong singing cast
By Pam Kragen 12:37p.m. Sep 28, 2014, updated 12:38p.m. Sep 28, 2014
Since she was in third grade, Vista actress Bets Malone has been playing mostly perky kids, teens and comic roles. But with her searing and moving performance in “Next to Normal,” which opened Saturday at the North Park Theatre, Malone proves she’s all grown up and ready to probe the darker depths of musical drama.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 musical shines in its San Diego regional theater premiere, produced by San Diego Musical Theatre. Although Saturday’s opening performance of the rock musical was often ear-ringingly loud, the production is well crafted by director Nick DiGruccio and incredibly well-sung and -acted by its six-member cast. With its adult language, sung-through score and intense subject matter, “Next to Normal” isn’t for everyone. It’s raw, heartbreaking, funny and contemporary in the best sense.
“Next to Normal” is the story of a family struggling to cope with mental illness. Diana Goodman (Malone), keeps up a surface veneer but she’s been barely holding it together for 18 years with a husband who bores her, a son who’s a “sh” and a brainy daughter who’s a “freak.”
Diana is bipolar with elements of schizophrenia and depression. She goes through the motions in her marriage to the ever-faithful Dan, ignores her straining-to-be-noticed 16-year-old daughter, Natalie, and endures a stream of increasingly invasive medical efforts (drugs, therapy, shock treatment) to stabilize her unbalanced psyche. Ultimately, she goes off her medication, because — as she poignantly explains in the song “I Miss the Mountains” — she’d rather be wracked with roiling emotions than placidly numbed by drugs.
Former San Diegan Alice Ripley originated the role of Diana and its harsh vocal demands hurt her voice. But Malone soars masterfully through the challenging score with dexterity, articulation, an ear-pleasing tone and organic phrasing that makes the lyrics sound as if she’s making them up on the spot.
Malone first played Diana last year in La Mirada opposite Robert J. Townsend, who reprises the role of Diana’s long-suffering husband Dan. Townsend has a supple voice, all-American good looks and the perfect rock-solid presence for the part, and his breakdown in the closing scene had many audience members wiping away tears (myself included).
At just 16, Lindsay Joan surprises with her impressive vocal power and control as angry daughter Natalie, but her razor-edge performance begins on a high-wire and has nowhere to climb.
Eddie Egan, who also starred in the La Mirada production, has a muscular energy and powerful rock tenor voice as Gabe, Diana’s enabling son.
Eric Michael Parker is endearing as Natalie’s devoted stoner boyfriend Henry.
And Geno Carr offers solid vocal backup and both comic and serious performances as Diana’s doctors.
Musical director Don LeMaster delivers a note-perfect rendering of the Tony-winning score. And the physical production by Matt Scarpino (sets), Matthew Novotny (lighting) and Janet Pitcher (costumes) evokes the look and feel of the Broadway original.
A bittersweet musical about mental illness isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun night out, but San Diego Musical Theatre’s staging is as good as you’ll see on Broadway, and it marks Malone’s coming-out party as a musical force to be reckoned with in San Diego.
“Next to Normal”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 12.
Where: San Diego Musical Theatre at the North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave., North Park
Tickets: $26-$56 (discounts available)
Phone: (858) 560-5740