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Review: 'Next to Normal' the perfect antidote for mental illness

Diana, played by Stacia Fernandez, sings of missing the highs and lows in Next to Normal, a Pulitzer-winning musical playing at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota.

Photo by Maria Lyle Photography

Diana, played by Stacia Fernandez, sings of missing the highs and lows in Next to Normal, a Pulitzer-winning musical playing at Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota.

SARASOTA — Mental illness, suicide, electroshock therapy — these things belong in a musical?

Yes, indeed they do, and somehow Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) created a compelling work about a suburban housewife named Diana Goodman who suffers from bipolar disorder. As serious as its subject is, the show is no downer. Quite the opposite. Next to Normal is not only passionately dramatic but also hilarious at times, as in a chorus about Diana's pill regimen of "Zoloft and Paxil and Buspar and Xanax" sung to the jaunty tune of My Favorite Things.

Stacia Fernandez plays Diana in the Florida Studio Theatre production of the musical, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and is being given an expert staging by the company's artistic director, Richard Hopkins. Her performance is full of unlikely showstoppers, such as Diana's titanic aria (belted out while wearing a white bathrobe) to mental instability, I Miss the Mountains. Fernandez (on leave from the ensemble of the Broadway production of Mamma Mia!) is totally riveting as a soccer mom on the brink.

An old adage about musical theater is that the characters talk until they are so overcome by emotion that they can do nothing else but break into song. Next to Normal is such a strongly emotional show that it is almost entirely made up of music, with relatively minimal dialogue, and it's remarkable how coherent the complex themes are when communicated in song. Its treatment of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), for example, manages to be unsensational and informative as well as deeply scary.

At the heart of the musical is a mother-daughter story, and Ashley Picciallo is sensationally good as Diana's 16-year-old, Natalie, a piano student whose despairing lament about the demands of classical music ("Mozart was crazy") can be heard in many a practice room. The prickly encounters she has with her pot-smoking boyfriend, Henry (James LaRosa), constitute as deft a portrayal of a teenage relationship as you'll see on stage nowadays.

Leo Daignault plays Diana's husband, Dan, who is the stoic, stolid member of the household — until he is not, in his shattering soliloquy in the Act 2 reprise of I Am the One. As the Goodmans' son, Gabe, Mike Backes is a ghostly, sometimes sinister and ultimately heartbreaking presence. And, of course, as befits a dysfunctional American family saga, there is a therapist, well played by Scott Guthrie.

The score has more than 30 songs, though titles are not listed in the playbill, and one of the reasons this production works so well is the excellent six-piece band, positioned behind the stage, with Aimee Radics conducting and playing keyboard. The scenic design (coordinated by April Soroko) is a stark arrangement of three platforms and a dinner table and chairs.

Next to Normal is almost overwhelming in the intimacy of FST's 173-seat theater.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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Next to Normal continues through Jan. 14 at Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N Palm Ave., Sarasota. Run time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission. $29-$40. (941) 366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org.

Review: 'Next to Normal' the perfect antidote for mental illness 12/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2011 11:15pm]

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