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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Next to Normal
Mesa Community College
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Pound, Camelot, and Chicago

Lindsay Decoste, Austin Stuart, and Riley Thornton
Photo by Melody Stuart
With a fantastic score and an emotionally rich story that focuses on the impact of mental illness on a family, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Pulitzer Prize winning Next to Normal is one of the best contemporary musicals of the past 20 years. While mental illness might not seem like a topic for a moving musical, the characters and relationships that Kitt and Yorkey created in this completely original show form a strong connection with the audience. With a superb cast, clear direction, impressive creative elements, and a sensational orchestra, Mesa Community College's recent production of this musical was stellar.

The plot centers on a very dysfunctional family. The mother, Diana, suffers from various mental disorders, and the ups and downs of her illness are a major strain on the rest of her family. Diana's husband Dan is very supportive and tries his best to help her, but Diana's unpredictable behavior makes that incredibly hard. The presence of their children Gabe and Natalie is a constant reminder to Diana that she has never truly been able to help and support them. As Diana seeks various treatments to improve her life and strengthen her relationships with her family members, she and the rest of the family must also deal with emotional scars from the past as they navigate their way through a life that is anything but normal.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Kitt and Yorkey won a Tony Award for their impressive score. Kitt's music incorporates pop and rock, plus styles that shift and themes and melodies that will stay with you. Yorkey's lyrics are extremely well thought out, with words and rhymes that resonate, and his book, like his lyrics, treats the characters and subject matter with care. There are also moments of humor that add some levity to the serious story.

Director Tregoney Shepherd treated the material and the characters with respect and staged the show very well on the large, impressive, two-story set by Dane Burk that ensured the various settings and rooms in Diana and Dan's house were clearly defined. Her cast created believable characters and realistic relationships with each other.

Lindsay Decoste beautifully captured the wide range of constantly changing emotions of Diana. Throughout the musical, Diana goes on and off her medication, and also goes through treatments that change her personality, and Decoste perceptively showed the shifts in the character realistically. She delivered a performance that was raw and emotionally moving. As Dan, Austin Stuart did an excellent job portraying the compassionate and caring husband and father. He also was impressive in showing the toll that Diana's illness has taken on Dan, and his gentle and natural line delivery helped to flesh out his character.

Jayla Quartullo was exceptional as Natalie, showing a young woman desperately seeking some kind of connection but also possessing an amount of assurance that everything will be okay. Riley Thornton did an excellent job portraying Natalie's brother Gabe, who serves, somewhat, as the antagonist of the piece. Without giving too much of the plot away, Gabe has a pull over Diana that isn't always positive. The way Shepherd staged the scenes that include Gabe, in which Thornton stalked around the stage almost as if he were an animal on the prowl, made me see the character in a completely different way from previous productions I've seen, which added even more nuance to Gabe and the relationships he has with the other members of his family.

Bennett Smith was fun and charming as Henry, the stoner, nerdy boy who falls for Natalie. Smith and Quartullo had realistic chemistry with each other and naturally portrayed a couple who have just started dating. Smith's performance was strong and endearing. Trevon Powell and RJ Gray did good work portraying two of Diana's doctors, with Powell delivering a crowd-pleasing and compelling performance.

The rich and warm singing voices and strong vocal abilities of the entire cast infused their songs with emotion, with Thornton's roof-raising delivery of "I'm Alive," Quartullo's soaring "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," Decoste's emotional cry for understanding, "You Don't Know," and Stuart's emotionally striking "He's Not Here," being just a few of the highlights. Under Darin Shyrock's music direction the cast's vocals soared and the nine-piece orchestra, which was larger than the original Broadway orchestra, delivered the best sound I've heard for a production of this show as well as one of the tightest-sounding orchestras I've heard in town.

In addition to Burk's impressive set, the lighting design by Ashton Michael Corey delivered some impressive visuals and the costume designs by Sharon Jones, along with the hair and make-up designs by Josh Lutton and Melody Stuart, respectively, were character specific and appropriate. While the sound design by Adrian Goldenthal was great for the orchestra, it was a little soft for the cast at the performance I attended, which made some of their vocals quiet and hard to hear in spots.

Next to Normal is a powerful, gut-wrenching and emotional musical, and Mesa Community College's production was exceptional. This is the first live production I've seen at MCC since Tregoney Shepherd has taken over their Music Theatre department and, based on how moving, rich and rewarding an experience it was I can't wait to see what she's got planned.

Mesa Community College required all cast members and audience members to wear a mask covering their nose and mouth inside the Performing Arts Center.

Next to Normal ran September 23-25, 2021, at the Mesa Community College Performing Arts Center, Mesa AZ. Tickets and information for upcoming productions can be found by calling 480-461-7172 or visiting

Director: Tregoney Shepherd
Music Director: Darin Shyrock
Set Designer: Dane Burk
Lighting Design: Ashton Michael Corey
Costume Design: Sharon Jones
Sound Design: Adrian Goldenthal
Props Designer: Mary Cox
Hair Designer: Josh Lutton
Makeup Designer: Melody Stuart
Stage Manager: Darl Jones Cast:
Diana: Lindsay Decoste
Dr. Fine: RJ Gray
Dr. Madden: Trevon Powell
Natalie: Jayla Quartullo
Henry: Bennett Smith
Dan: Austin Stuart
Gabe: Riley Thornton