Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Next to Normal
Stephanie Likes has appeared in the tour and original Broadway production of Les Misérables and Casey Likes recently co-starred in the Old Globe Theatre run of Almost Famous, the Musical, which had plans to move to Broadway when COVID-19 hit. Both have performed in numerous other shows in town and Casey has also played several lead roles in youth shows, including at Greasepaint Youth Theatre whose artistic director, Maureen Dias Watson, directs this production of Next to Normal.
This is the fourth production of this Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning original musical that I've seen in Phoenix and it's a beautiful production of this highly accessible musical that provides an in-depth view into the impact that mental illness and grief have not only on the individual suffering with the disease but everyone around them as well.
The musical focuses on a typical modern family that faces issues similar to what most families deal with, except for the fact that their life is anything but normal since mother Diana suffers from a long list of mental diseases. The plot follows the various medications and treatments Diana is prescribed to try to improve her life and the toll it takes on the entire family while also bringing up emotional scars from the past.
The Tony winning score, with Kitt's beautiful and varied pop/rock music and Yorkey's lyrics that are respectful to the characters and situations, with some great rhymes, is exceptional. Kitt uses repetitive music cues and melodies that are weaved throughout the show with a range of musical styles. Yorkey's book fully fleshes out the characters while also providing an extensive look into some of the effects of mental illness. It's one of my favorite modern musicals as it's not only emotional and moving but also humorous and highly entertaining while also providing an analysis of a subject that many people may not be aware of.
Maureen Dias Watson's direction is spotless and respectful of the subject matter and characters. Her staging makes good use of the two-level set by Peter Bish and Chase Budden. Lorenzo Slavin's music direction delivers a rich sound of the Tony winning orchestrations from the small onstage band and exceptional notes and lush harmonies from the entire cast.
The cast of six create detailed, nuanced, and realistic portrayals. As Diana, Stephanie Likes' performance is impressive. She manages to beautifully capture not only the confusion and moments of sanity of this complex woman but also lets us see how the emotional scars from her past have effected her. Likes' singing voice has a raw intensity to it that works well to depict the passion and pain of the character and her well thought out facial expressions and body movement help flesh out the frantic nature as well as the moments of numbness the character feels. It's an exceptional performance.
Caleb Reese is equally as good as Dan, Diana's supportive husband, a man who is loyal and compassionate and trying to do what he believes is right to bring some sense of normalcy to his family. Reese's singing voice is powerful and clear. Casey Likes and Nora Palermo are excellent as, respectively, their passionate son Gabe, who has strong ties to his mother, and argumentative daughter Natalie, who is concerned she may end up like her mother. Their singing voices are superb. Casey Likes literally throws himself into the role, with acrobatic moves as he jumps, runs, and climbs onto and around the set and stage, and Palermo's Natalie is one of the most effective portrayals of this young woman that I've seen. Ethan Drew is very good as the sweet and charming stoner Henry, who falls for Natalie. He and Palermo present a realistic couple you want to see succeed; I found new insight into the characters in the scenes that feature them. Bob Sorensen is effective as the two doctors who treat Diana.
Mental illness isn't quite as misunderstood and uncomfortable to talk about today as it was in the past, when there was even more of a negative stigma attached to it. It is also something that features more into films and TV shows today compared to when this musical first premiered more than 10 years ago. While the topic may not be as difficult to discuss today, Next to Normal is still incredibly effective and provides a rollercoaster of emotions. With six excellent performances, Scottsdale Community Players' production is extraordinarily effective.
The Scottsdale Community Players production of Next to Normal runs through January 23, 2022, at Greasepaint Youth Theatre, 7020 E. 2nd Street, Scottsdale AZ. For information and to purchase tickets call 480-949-7529 or visit www.greasepaint.org.
Directed by Maureen Dias-Watson