Review: How does Camille Gaston elevate the Fresno-area theater scene? Let me count the ways in ‘Next to Normal’
How many times throughout the years have I sung the praises of Camille Gaston? For “Next to Normal,” her latest superlative performance at Selma Arts Center, I have so much material with which to work that I could almost just cut-and-paste a series of accolades from past reviews and still make it feel fresh.
Or I could tell ChatGPT to write a critique in my style, telling the program to use such keywords as “intense,” “mesmerizing,” “vocally stunning” and “the type of performance that lingers in your head for days afterward.” (That last one is pretty long for a keyword, but you get the idea.)
I won’t do either. Instead I’ll just say: Gaston is superb as the central character of Diana, the troubled mother with a bipolar disorder, in this deeply felt and powerfully realized musical production.
Her supporting cast playing her family is, too, each and every one of them: Terry Lewis, in top vocal form as the husband, desperate as the show opens to nudge Diana into further treatment when her current medication sets her into a manic spin; Brittany Smith as the daughter, eternally frustrated at her mother’s inability to demonstrate parental warmth; Jason Bionda as the son, a rebel with a cocky, feral intensity.
Two supporting roles are likewise impressive: Lex Martin as a pot-head boyfriend; and a pitch-perfect Ben Sells playing several psychiatrists trying to treat Diana with the mix of science and gut instinct that is the mark of modern medicine.
Co-directors Laramie Dawn Woolsey and Jessica Meredith take some chances with their concept for this much lauded 2008 Broadway musical by Tom Kitt (who wrote the music) and Brian Yorkey (who wrote the lyrics). One of the biggest is including a featured dancer (a graceful Shelby Guizar) to offer selective movement-based moments interpreting Diana’s various states of mind.
I’ve seen the show three times previously, including the original Broadway cast, and I’ll confess I was skeptical going into the Selma production that adding such a prominent element to an already taut and cohesive script would be successful. My reaction: I didn’t hate it. There are times when Guizar’s movements add an interesting visual commentary on Diana’s moods. And I was glad the effect is used sparingly; it’s the kind of thing that could soon outlive its welcome. But I also felt that the key to this show is the way the audience can fall into Diana’s interior world. And the way we do that is through Diana’s acting and singing. Gaston’s slightly smoky voice is riveting, both in words and song, but so is her face, and I wanted to keep my eyes firmly on her – I wanted to watch her anguish and manic joy and drugged vacantness –rather than watching someone else dance.
Other directorial choices are strong, including ethnically diverse casting and a powerfully all-white set (credited to the Woolsey family). And while there are a few clunky moments (including an off-stage conversation that feels awkward in the song “It’s Going to Be Great”), the show flows smoothly. And individual touches shine: the prowling, impish gait of Bionda as the son; the choked-up medical dictation of Sells as the psychiatrist; the emotional punch when Gaston as the mother sings “I love you as much as I can” about her daughter. I marvel, by the way, at Martin’s acting (and amazing genetics) for pulling off a teenage role. And I can’t say enough about Lewis’ sensitivity and emotional impact.
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Having a live band is glorious, and the fact that Selma Arts Center is able to pull it off in a community production is a wondrous thing, indeed. (Musical director Jack Landseadel and his musicians soar; sound designer Adrian Oceguera does a wonderful job making sure the live music doesn’t overpower the singers.) I never warmed up to Christina McCollum’s lighting design, however. Abrupt tonal lighting changes too often bring attention to themselves rather than subtly ease transitions. And there’s a dim, muddy feel to much of the show, even in its manic moments. I like to imagine that the predominant murkiness is supposed to be mirroring the darker recesses of Diana’s mind, but too often the effect, played against the all-white set, feels drab.
Still, this production is notable and important. And it’s yet another triumph for Gaston, whose range and magnetism seem to know no bounds.
One of my favorite moments in “Next to Normal” comes when we learn where the title comes from. The moment occurs late in the show, but it’s no spoiler to relate it to people who haven’t yet seen it. Essentially it’s this: People often talk of having a “normal” life, as if that’s something that, like a scientist capturing an insect in a bottle, can be captured, quantified and dissected. But who is to say what’s “normal”? Don’t we all have deviations from the norm in terms of family dynamics, relationships, personality traits, etc.? Perhaps, Diana’s daughter muses, the best that one can hope for is “next” to normal. In a broader sense, we are all next to normal. That’s what makes this show universal.