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Award Winning “Next to Normal” On Stage At The Oceanside Theatre Company At The Brooks

By   /  May 14, 2024  /  No Comments


TR Robertson   -If you enjoy musical theater and have a list of musicals you have never seen but want to see, or musicals you want to see again, and “Next to Normal” is not on that list, you are missing one of the most unique, thought provoking and well written musicals from the last twenty years. You have a chance to see “Next to Normal” now, on stage at The Oceanside Theatre Company at the Sunshine Brooks Theatre on Coast Highway until May 26th. This 2008 Rock Musical is from a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt. The musical began as a 10-minute piece called “Feeling Electric”, written as a final project by Yorkey, assisted by Tom Kitt. The project was for the BMI (Broadway Music, Inc.) Musical Theatre Workshop, written in the late 1990’s. Yorkey, whose work sometimes looks at controversial subjects, was inspired to create the work after seeing a news story on electroconvulsive therapy he saw on Dateline NBC.

Yorkey and Kitt would expand the short piece into a 2-hour 20-minute rock musical with 38 songs featured to tell the story with very little dialogue. The musical would win the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score, receive two Drama Desk Awards and receive eleven Tony Award nominations, winning three (Best Original Score, Best Performance by a Leading Actress and Best Orchestration). “Next to Normal” also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

  • L-R - Gabe (Danny Holmes), Diana (Melissa Fernandes), Dan (Berto Frenendez, Natalie (Salima Gangani

  Photos by Ken Jacques

The storyline “Next to Normal” centers on involves a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder and depression and the loss of a child and the variety of treatments she encounters from different doctors and psychiatrists and the effect all of this is having on her husband and daughter. By the end of the musical, you will have seen powerful performances and a dynamic number of songs that will touch on grief, depression, suicide, drug abuse, drug therapy, hypnotherapy, the effects of mental illness on families, marriage and family relationships, teen relationships, medical and psychiatric treatments for mental illness, and the road to recovery or at least getting “Next to Normal”. This is not your average musical, but it is well worth seeing and will generate interesting discussions in your own families.

As with any theatrical work, the key to the performance is the actors selected to portray the various characters in this musical and did OTC make the perfect selections for this production. As you watch each of the six members of the cast in their selected roles, you come to believe, for the 2+ hour musical, that this is a real family going through the tragedy and suffering mental illness has brought to their lives. All of the six-member cast is making their OTC debut. The musical centers around the mother, Diana, played by former San Diego Critics Circle Female Actor of the Year in 2016, Melissa Fernandes. Melissa’s performance as the troubled mom, struggling with a traumatic memory and trying to deal with bipolar disorder as she tries to cope with being a mom and a wife, is absolutely stunning. Her journey through all of the doctor’s recommendations to deal with her bipolar diagnosis is heart wrenching. An equally stunning performance is by Berto Fernandez as Diana’s husband Dan. Berto is a San Diego Critics Circle Actor of the Year in 2022. Fernandez strong performance as the husband trying to keep the family together, dealing with a wife who is struggling and a daughter who is pulling farther away from the family is gut wrenching at times. Both Melissa and Berto have strong voices and have numerous times in the musical to show this. Melissa’s ballad “I Miss the Mountains” is emotional as is her combining with Berto on numbers like “A Light in the Dark” and “How Could I Ever Forget?”

Playing daughter Natalie is Salima Gangani. Salima is a graduate of the University of Redlands and has been involved in several regional musicals. Playing the 16 year old daughter in a family going through some serious issues, Salima brings to the stage a spot-on, energetic performance of a teenager trying to find her place, trying to deal with school and a relationship, trying to deal with a mother she wants to help but doesn’t know how and a father who she questions when it comes to the treatments her mother is going through. This is a lot for any teenager to go through and one many teens do go through in “real life”. Salima’s “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” number is a dynamic emotional performance. Playing want-to-be boyfriend Henry is Marlon James Magtibay. Marlon is a graduate of CSU Fullerton with a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre. As Henry, Marlon tries to navigate the issues Natalie is going through and shares several touching moments with her, in the songs “Hey #2” and “Hey #3”.

Danny Holmes as Gabe, Diana’s hallucination of her deceased baby boy grown up as a teenager, might have been one of the hardest roles on stage. Danny, as Gabe, has to appear occasionally on stage with Diana and always remember everyone on stage, except Diana, can’t see him. Everyone’s eye contact, except Diana, cannot be with Gabe. He is one of the invisible things Diana is dealing with in her life. Danny has a number of solo numbers dealing with his effect on Diana and his need as a memory to stay with Diana. Songs like “I’m Alive”, “There’s a World”, “Aftershocks” and “I Am the One” which he sings with his father toward the end of the musical. Daniel Filippi plays several of Diana’s doctors/psychiatrists, Doctor Madden and Doctor Fine. Daniel has performed in several regional theatres both as an actor and as a musician.

There are a number of powerful moments on stage from the songs and performances you witness. Some of the songs are somewhat comedic and ironic, like “Who’s Crazy/My Psychopharmacologist and I”, sung by the cast. This is a song that questions the myriad of different pills that can be used in mental illness treatment. One of Diana’s doctors says, “We try again until we get it right”. Later in the musical the doctor says, “Medicine is not magic, it’s all that we’ve got”. Diana sings a very emotional song, “You Don’t Know”, that deals with her feelings when someone says, “I know how you feel”. Light, seeing the light of day, going into the light, all play a significant role in the play. The cast uses a number of lighting effects and props throughout the play. Handheld small lights, flashlights, long tubular lights are all used to create a mood or to light a face or create movement behind the performers. The last number for Act I is “A Light in the Dark”, sung by Dan and Diana and the final number of the play is “Light”, sung by the entire cast.

The director for “Next to Normal” is Frankie Errington, a long-time actor in San Diego Regional theatre companies. Frankie’s Creative Team includes Movement Consultant Alyssa “Ajay” Junious, Stage Manager Maura McMillan, Asst. Stage Manager Amelia Simpson, Scenic Designer Reiko Huffman, Sound Designer Andre Buck Jr., Sound Mixer and Technical Director Geronimo Omabtang, Lighting Designer Kevin “Blax” Burroughs, Costume Designer Zoe Trautmann, Costume Assistant Kendehl Hill, Props & Set Dressing McKenna Foote. The Musical Director and Conductor of the “Next to Normal” Band is Dr. Randi Rudolph. The band “did not miss a beat” in the 38 number 2+ hour rock musical, playing almost constantly from start to finish. Band members included Nikko Nobleza, Jared Pasimio, Mike Dooley, and Abigail Allwein.

Mental illness within families is a topic most don’t talk about, like to admit or for many, know how to deal with. The television is filled with commercials dealing with advertising a variety of medications to help with depression, bipolar disorder and much, much more. There are also a number of mental health resources available, finding the right one for each situation being the optimum problem. The last page of the “Next to Normal” program even listed a few of the resources. The rock musical “Next to Normal” does not deal lightly with the subject of mental illness, including one of the more extreme treatments, electroconvulsive therapy. There are no easy answers and the final moments of “Next to Normal” simply gives the writer’s version of how he wants his main character to come to terms with her situation.

This powerful, insightful rock musical will be on stage at the Oceanside Theatre Company at the Brooks Theatre until May 26th. The Sunshine Brooks Theater is located at 217 N. Coast Highway in Oceanside. For tickets go to 760-433-8900 or www.oceansidetheatre.org.


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  • Published: 1 month ago on May 14, 2024
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