Next to Normal is a musical about a family, but it is definitely not a “family” musical. That is to say, its subject matter – mental illness, drug abuse, the vagaries of modern behavioral therapy and psychopharmacology – is a far cry from “normal” musical theater fare. This show is decidedly not your father’s Fiddler on the Roof, nor your mother’s Gypsy.
While all families, even the ones in musicals, have their high and low moments, the Goodman family is teetering way out on a precarious ledge. Diana is struggling with bipolar disorder; husband Dan is her harried caretaker, desperately attempting to hold onto a spouse who is slipping away; Natalie, their teenage daughter, feels she is invisible to her parents and turns to her mother’s medicine cabinet to soothe her pain; and their son, Gabe – well, let’s just say that Gabe is a somewhat ethereal presence in the Goodman household.
With a rock opera score and bare-bones staging, the show (music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey) was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009 and won three, including Best Original Score and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, for Alice Ripley’s celebrated portrayal of Diana. It became only the eighth musical in history to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which it did in 2010.
The Greater Orlando Actors Theatre has mounted an emotionally potent and musically satisfying production of the work, with stage and musical direction by Michael Horn. The fine cast features Leesa Halstead as Diana, Wyatt Glover as Dan, Jaz Zepatos as Natalie, Michael Gunn as Gabe, Dan Middleditch as Henry, and Brett Dault as doctors Fine and Madden.
Horn’s performers don’t always hit every musical note with perfection, and sometimes the band is too loud, drowning out their voices. But more often than not, the company delivers Kitt’s searing score and Yorkey’s razor-sharp lyrics with pitch-perfect feeling. There are no easy sentiments conveyed in Next to Normal. Most of its musical numbers are paeans to deep psychic suffering.
Although the show’s take on the vicissitudes of mental illness and the damage it can do to its victims and their families is unflinching and sometimes brutal, there are no villains to be seen here; none of the characters, nor even the illness itself, which has its own strangely seductive qualities, is inherently evil. That reality only makes the struggle to vanquish it more poignant.
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