"Next to Normal" gets the Oceanside Theatre Company Touch

with Live Music and Solid Portrayals 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti 

Daniel Filippi, Danny Holmes, and Melissa Fernandes. Photo Ken Jacques

There are iconic shows that set a mark, a before, and an after. Next to Normal is one of those productions. A show that covers so much, wrapped up in a beautiful soundtrack with amazing music by Tom Kitt and powerful lyrics full of truth written by Brian Yorkey. Next to Normal won three Tony Awards in 2009, including Best Musical Score, and a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. When we are not dealing with a premiere, for my mental frame and context to the outside world, I clarify for reference if I have or have not seen a previous production of the piece being reviewed. The Broadway touring production with Alice Ripley in the leading role of Diana came to San Diego in 2010. San Diego Musical Theatre did a production of it, I believe, in 2014. 

A story that takes place with a family of four that is crumbling. Diana (Melissa Fernandes) has been struggling with her mental health for over a decade and although her husband Dan (Berto Fernández) is fully aware, he is struggling with some demons of his own that are being neglected and brushed under the rug. Natalie (Salima Gangani), the youngest of the two children is picking up all the pieces and trying to grasp it all at the tender age of 16; her boyfriend Henry (Marlon James Magtibay) is supportive but a distraction Natalie is unsure of handling. Diana is under psychiatric treatment with Dr. Madden (Daniel Filippi) and in their sessions, they discuss the dynamic with each of the family members including her oldest son Gabe (Danny Holmes). As she strives to get better, episodes will take place, reaching conclusions and triggering truths. 

Melissa Fernandes, Berto Fernández, and Salima Gangani. Photo Ken Jacques

I will continue to say that it is fabulous when local theatres take the leap to produce these works expanding their life and giving more people the opportunity to have the experience. Oceanside Theatre Company gave it its own touch and look which I applaud. Starting with the famous Next to Normal set design that consisted of two stories made of steel where the characters would go up and down with the stomps echoing and creating a bigger impact, scenic designer Reiko Huffman took the iconic reference and used a wooden design with relief that gave the effect of the stories and the movement along with the stomps. Here, I consider that an added value was the cracking of the wood. all painted in white with the live band in the back and the signature Next to Normal lilac as a backdrop that played with OTC Artistic Director Kevin “Blax” Burroughs's lighting of the show that went all in with shadows, fade-outs, and contours that captured and uplifted each scene. The actors also carry ring lights or rings that have lights, that they turn on and off and make good, visual, sense. Another element used with the set and light design where long, lightsaber-type tubes that had multiple uses and also worked. I do not know who is to credit for this, if it was Reiko or Mckenna Foote with props design but some of Diana's pills are illustrated with glitter and that is fantastic. Something odd was having microphone cords tangled all throughout the set. I could see Huffman aiming to clue in the family and Diana's chaos but it did not sync in until Alyssa “Ajay” Junious's choreography took place making sense and having an original OTC take on the famous production. Zoë Trauttman's costume design gave variety from Dan's pajamas to work clothes and Diana's loungewear to jeans and everyday outfits to Natalie's school style both for class and the school dance that was fun and cute.

And, doing justice to the beautiful music of this piece, OTC took the live route under the musical direction of Dr. Randi Rudolph who definitely stood out in the background with a lively conduction and piano playing that was visibly being enjoyed thoroughly. Leading Nikko Nobleza on guitar, Jared Pasimio on bass, Mike Dooley on drums, and Abigail Allwein on the violin. This went in parallel with Andre Buck Jr's sound design and mixing that did not miss a byte and had the actor's voices go through crisply along with the music. 

A fun fact is that the entire cast is making their Oceanside debut with this production. Frankie Errington's direction is paced and punctual guiding the actors to really sync in the role, truly articulate each dialogue, and have it set in. Every production of Next to Normal I have seen, including the Broadway production, feels fast and chaotic. This is not in a bad way, it's just the essence of the story but Errington gave it air and I appreciated that. 
Danny Holmes, Melissa Fernandes and Berto Fernández. Photo by Ken Jacques

It is always great to see new and upcoming faces on the stage like Salima Gangani who did a great job with Natalie as the notes for that character are high, long, and complex to sing. The renditions of Hey #1 and #2 with Marlon James Magtibay as Henry, are on-point, harmonized, and tingle-provoking. Magtibay's intention is straightforward and well-delivered. Daniel Filippi is on point as Dr. Madden hitting the mark on the medical personality, the stoicism, and the intention to really help Diana along with great vocals and interpretation with songs like Seconds and Years, as well as Make Up Your Mind.... Danny Holmes as Gabe flows around that set like no one's business having a strong stage dynamic with Melissa Fernandes who is impressive as Diana both histrionically and vocally. The reprise of It's Gonna Be Good, sung with Dan, is a tongue-twister of a rollercoaster that Fernandes and Fernández delivered flawlessly. Not an easy task. I also appreciated Melissa's hair journey through the performance, from a high bun to a low ponytail, to a side braid, to hair down. 

Berto Fernández continues to amaze with the variety and range he has as a performer. From Don in Kinky Boots to Dan in this production, uf!. The signature and beautiful I Am the One, -sigh- there is no bad song in this production. This musical as a whole, is no easy task and not just anybody can portray these roles. Each and every one of the actors is in their zone with a sturdy focus. In the performance I saw, there were no cracks, no missed notes, and no mic fails. -Bliss-

Next to Normal is on its last weekend of performances closing on May 26. Gift yourself the time to enjoy this production as well as a good, solid cry.

For more information on performance times and ticket prices, please click HERE

The Band - Next to Normal Photo by Ken Jacques

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