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From left, Joshua Lubatti, Emily Candia, Taylor Lozano, Adam Calvillo, Shawn Rader and Bethany Lahammer in a scene from "Next to Normal," opening Friday at The Empty Space.

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Shawn Rader, standing, Emily Candia and Taylor Lozano in a scene from "Next to Normal," opening Friday at The Empty Space.

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photo2 - Taylor Dunn and Jay Stodder

"Next to Normal," an acclaimed rock musical about a young woman who is bipolar, allowed director Jessica Burzlaff to combine two of her interests for the show, opening Friday at The Empty Space.

"I'm a marriage and family therapist by trade," she says, "but a theater kid at heart."

Dealing with mental illness is the main theme of the show in which most of the dialogue is sung, accompanied by recorded music.

About two weeks ago I happened to be present at a CSUB 60 Plus Club meeting where three of the main actors did a scene from the show. From that brief presentation, I can assure you that it's very intense and definitely holds your attention.

"A second theme is hope," Burzlaff said. "It's so refreshing because it deals with a woman called Diana and it's told from her point of view."

Diana, who has been diagnosed as bipolar, is played by Bethany Lahammer. The character is married to Dan (Adam Calvillo) and has a teenage daughter (Emily Candia.) A remarkable thing about "Next to Normal" is that playwright Brian Yorkey won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama, an honor rarely given to a musical. Also, Tom Kitt received a Tony for the show's musical score.

"It's a little dark but there's quite a bit of levity in it, too," the director said. "It takes place during six months of Diana's life, from September to March."

Burzlaff became aware of the play about five years ago when she was in graduate school at Cal State Bakersfield.

Part of her motivation is to create awareness of NAMI, of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She's a member of the local affiliate, which is paying for a portion of the production costs.

Also in the cast are Taylor Lozano and Shawn Rader, a well-known member of the Gaslight Melodrama company who plays a character who is both real and unreal. Joshua Lubatti portrays a psychiatrist.

Christopher Burzlaff, Jessica's husband, is assistant director and Michael Crider, music director.

Burzlaff estimates the two-act play's running time is about two hours, including a 15-minute intermission.

Performances of "Next to Normal" continue through Feb. 8 at the Oak Street theater.

'The Wasco Kid'

Opening Friday at the Gaslight Melodrama is "The Legend of the Wasco Kid," director Michael Prince's original play about Wasco -- its past but mostly as the town is at present.

Don Kruszka plays Johnny Wasco, a pioneer U.S. marshal who is propelled into the 21st century by a tornado and has trouble establishing his credibility.

Typically, Gaslight does a western show for its first show of the year but Prince decided to give the 2014 edition a slightly different flavor.

"The idea of doing a somewhat modern western mixed with a fish-out-of-water story seemed fun and exciting," he said. "The Festival of Roses is something Wasco is very well-known for, so it made sense to set a big chunk of the action around that."

A conflict arises when "evil tycoon Sherwood Shafter" tries to bring an end to the town's annual rose festival.

All of the actors, including Kruszka, are members of the Gaslight company: Jay Stodder,Matt Thompson, Ali Dougherty, Taylor Dunn and Jennifer Prince.

Country singer in Tehachapi

Deborah Hand-Cutler, co-owner of Fiddlers Crossing, describes country singer Amber Cross as a rising star.

Cross, who'll be at the Tehachapi coffee house Saturday evening, is "one of those singers that you'll soon enough be able to tell your friends, 'I heard her first at Fiddlers Crossing,'" Hand-Cutler said.

I visited the singer's website (ambercross.com) to listen to her rendition of "San Joaquin," a storytelling song that recounts in a meaningful way the history of the valley. And she definitely has a distinctive voice and manner.

"Listening to her old-school country songs and honest back-porch voice has been likened to putting an archival Smithsonian recording on the turntable," Hand-Cutler said.

Originally from Maine, Cross spent her early years surrounded by gospel music in a small-town church where her father preached and her mother played piano. After attending the University of New Mexico and living in various parts of California, she now makes her home in San Luis Obispo.

Cross's first album, "You Can Come In," was released in March and according to Hand-Cutler, received a five-star review from Country People Magazine.

The singer plays guitar and performs both solo and with backup players. At Fiddlers Crossing, she will be accompanied by her husband, guitarist James Moore, and by Cajun/old-time fiddler Gary Arcemont.

Church hosts African choir

The African Children's Choir is making a return visit to Bakersfield on Feb. 5 at the Compassion Christian Church.

"We actually had them here last year and since it was such an awesome experience and a great response from the city, they contacted us to come again," said Marisa Banks, administrator of the church's Agapeland Christian Academy.

Agapeland, she said, is a preschool and also offers before- and after-school programs for children who attend kindergarten through sixth grade at nearby elementary schools.

"We have found (the choir) to be a wonderful experience," Banks said. "It gives American children a chance to interact with children from Africa; it's a win-win all the way around."

The choir's parent organization, Music for Life, founded in 1984, works in seven African countries -- Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa -- according to a news release from the nonprofit humanitarian agency. The children's choir has toured throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

For its performance here, the 18-member choir will present African songs and dances as well as traditional spirituals and gospel music.

Although there is no charge for admission, a freewill offering will be accepted.