Next to Normal

By Megan McDonald November 7, 2011

Ashley Picciallo, Leo Daignault, Stacia Fernndez and Mike Backes in FST's Next to Normal.

A musical about a family trying to deal with mental illness might not seem likely or even doable. But as anyone who follows the theater world knows, Next to Normal’s Broadway production rose to the challenge brilliantly, capturing the Pulitzer Prize and being nominated for almost a dozen Tonys. Now the show is onstage at Florida Studio Theatre, and proof for us that this one family’s story can emphatically--and even hopefully--relate to our own.

I think that’s in large part because the operative word in the first sentence above is “trying.” Even though the Goodman family is faced with more than they sometimes think they can bear, they do keep trying--to face demons and hold on to their feelings for each other.

We first meet mother Diana (Stacia Fernandez) at the beginning of what seems a normal, if whirlwind day, packing lunches for her smart but neglected daughter Natalie (Ashley Picciallo) and offering to have sex with her nebbishy husband Dan (Leo Daignault). Her teenage son is also there, but it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s only there for Diana, who’s in the middle of an episode due to her bipolar disorder, and that no one else sees him.

The son is a symbol of sorts for her mental illness, and, as aggressively portrayed by Mike Backes, he’s fighting to stay alive in her mind even as Diana absorbs mass quantities of drugs to cope with her condition. She and her doctor (Scott Guthrie) mix one cocktail after another trying to hit the right dosage; for her, the end of that experiment arrives when she reaches the point of not feeling herself--in fact, not feeling anything. For the doctor, however, that means, “Patient is stable.”

Diana’s journey continues with another doctor in alternately frightening and sometimes darkly comic ways. Meanwhile Dan stubbornly stays true to the vows he made with her years ago, and Natalie gingerly begins a relationship with the gentle Henry (James LaRosa)--one that may seem to echo the pattern of her parents’.

The whole emotional, often exhilarating story is told mostly in the songs by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, with genres ranging from hard-driving rock to softer ballads and delivered with lots of power by the cast and the band (led by Aimee Radics). The action, on a three-part set by April Soroka, moves us swiftly and compellingly along, with the show’s creators and director Richard Hopkins giving us just the right blend  of noisy, frantic moments and quieter, more contemplative ones. The cast is all excellent, but Fernandez and Picciallo are especially impressive. And, in a town where standing ovations can become too common, these performers truly earn theirs.

Next to Normal continues through Jan. 7; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to

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