“Next to Normal” – Nearly Naked Theatre

This review aired on KBAQ June 6, 2016


Nearly Naked Theatre, Hardes Theatre, Phoenix Theatre
Phoenix, AZ

The masterful musical “Next to Normal” creates a dynamically insightful look at a psychologically troubled yet emotionally complex central character, Diana, and the impact her devastating illness places both on her and on her supportive family.  It’s probably the most probing American musical ever written.

Although not totally successful, Nearly Naked Theatre’s production rises to many of the musical’s demands and the local staging directed by Damon Dering has a superlative cast and features as Diana local musical theater diva Johanna Carlisle who is probably the only local performer who could successfully portray this bizarrely erratic part.  Diana struggles valiantly with her psychological constraints and she possesses a devotion to curing herself.  The show focuses totally on Diana’s plight and how each family member battles with her to seek a permanent solution.  Her family includes husband Dan, daughter Natalie, and son Gabe.  We also meet Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry, and Diana’s doctors.  This small group convinces they are a nuclear family with two closely connected outsiders who are there to help.

The brilliant original Broadway production starred Alice Ripley in an appearance that brought her well-deserved acclaim.  Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s beautiful score contains thoughtful melodies that explain characters thoughts in this perplexing situation.  Yorkey’s book crafts an insightful look at a transforming issue.  And that also serves as a warning that seeing “Next to Normal” forces audiences to join a suffering family.  It’s not the easiest show to sit through and attend only if you can become immersed in the taxing issues confronting these characters.

Director Dering has paced this awesome story perfectly and he keeps what could be dry story patches dynamic and vibrant.  Music director Curtis Moeller leads a six-person ensemble flawlessly.

Carlisle becomes the bewildered Diana in a commanding performance that rightfully dominates the show.  Unfortunately, the music is not composed in Carlisle’s normal range so she struggles with several songs.  As her husband, Dave Ray remains calm and steadfast ready to do whatever he must to help Diana become normal again.  Both Adam Bei and Johnna Watson as Diana’s children are amazingly mature considering they’ve grown up in a dysfunctional family.

Saturday’s opening night was plagued with light and sound problems that must be resolved to avoid focusing audiences on distracting technical glitches.  It was also freezing in the theater.

While not perfect, Nearly Naked Theatre’s stalwart tackling of the difficult “Next to Normal” is quite an accomplishment.  The show continues through June 25th.  For tickets, call the Phoenix Theater box office at 602-254-2151 or for additional show information, call Nearly Naked Theatre at 602-274-2432.

Grade: B