Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Next to Normal
Arizona Regional Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Two Trains Running, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Singin' in the Rain and Who Will Carry the Word?

Nathan Sheppard, Amy Jo Halliday, and Andy Albrecht
Photo by Arona Spader / JALT Media
Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal is a highly accessible musical that provides a look into the impact that mental illness and grief have on a family. With a gifted cast and confident direction, Arizona Regional Theatre is presenting an impressive and solid production of this emotional roller coaster of a musical which won the Pulitzer Prize as well as Tony Awards for its excellent score and orchestration.

This original musical focuses on a typical, modern family that faces issues that just about every other family today deals with, except that their life is anything but normal since mother Diana suffers from several mental diseases. The musical depicts the toll taken on Diana's family from her illness and the various medications and treatments she is prescribed to try to improve her life and mental well-being. The results of the pills she is given and the therapies she undergoes don't always deliver the planned results and also, unfortunately, have the side effect of bringing up emotional scars from her past.

Kitt's pop/rock music is exceptional, with a range of musical styles and melodies that are successfully woven throughout the show to mirror the shifting changes in the characters. Yorkey's book and lyrics are equally good, and respectful to the characters and subjects in the show while fully fleshing them out and providing moments of humor. Kitt and Yorkey prove that a show about mental illness can provide an in-depth view of a subject matter that many people may not have much knowledge of, and also be highly entertaining, moving and full of emotion.

Chris R. Chávez's direction never falters. He is incredibly considerate of the subject matter and the characters, and stages the action very well on the multi-layered set. He also incorporates a few effective projections, though the projection of a diary entry we see Diana start at the opening of the show isn't fleshed out to full effect; it would have been nice for this to come back throughout the show as I found it an intriguing addition. Chávez's cast deliver performances that are nuanced, layered, and full of understanding and emotion. All of the characters change, grow and learn throughout the show and the actors achieve notable, realistic portrayals that are also emotionally raw.

As Diana, Amy Jo Halliday manages to beautifully capture the confusion and emotional scars of a very complex woman. Her singing voice is exceptional and clear yet also full of a raw intensity that adds an earthy passion to the character. Her looks and gestures range from frantic, frenzied, vacant and numb to quiet and clearly focused, expertly portraying the shifts that Diana goes through and the impact of the changing levels of medication she is taking and the treatment she undergoes. Halliday's performance is incredibly impressive.

As Dan, Diana's supportive husband, Andy Albrecht projects compassion, loyalty and endless support as Dan tries to retain a sense of normalcy in his family. Albrecht's singing voice is clear and rich. Kendra Richards and Nathan Sheppard are flawless as, respectively, Diana and Dan's argumentative daughter Natalie, who is searching for some way to ensure that life will be OK for herself and her family, and their son Gabe, who has a deep emotional connection with his mother. Their singing voices are superb. In smaller roles, Tucker Abney is sweet, charming, and very good as Henry, the stoner boy who falls for Natalie, and James Grandjean is compelling and realistic as two doctors who treat Diana.

Jennifer Adams' music direction delivers superb sound from the six-person onstage band and lush vocals from the entire cast. Kayla Etheridge and Kimberly Sheperd's perfect costume designs are character appropriate. The lighting by Jordan Daniels and sound design by Jerrad Stutzman are fine, though at the performance I attended there were several times when they were both unfocused and spotty.

The misunderstood and uncomfortable issue of mental illness, which also has an unfortunate, negative stigma attached to it, is something that seems to be discussed more often and openly today than it was 10 years ago when this show first appeared on Broadway. Yet Next to Normal still provides a wallop of emotions and, with an excellent cast and clear and focused direction, Arizona Regional Theatre's production is a moving and impactful reminder of how mental illness effects not just the individual afflicted with the disease but everyone around him or her as well.

Arizona Regional Theatre's Next to Normal, through February 24, 2019, at Third Street Theatre, Phoenix Center for the Arts, 1202 N 3rd St., Phoenix AZ. Information and tickets for this show and upcoming productions are available at or by phone at 602-698-8668.

Director: Chris R. Chávez
Music Director: Jennifer Adams
Lighting Designer: Jordan Daniels
Costume Design: Kayla Etheridge and Kimberly Sheperd
Sound Design: Jerrad Stutzman

Diana: Amy Jo Halliday
Dan: Andy Albrecht
Gabe: Nathan Sheppard
Natalie: Kendra Richards
Henry: Tucker Abney
Doctor Madden: James Grandjean

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