Theater Review: mad Theatre's Next to Normal

The rock opera threatens to OD on melodrama but is saved by a crack cast.

click to enlarge A FAMILY AFFAIR: Next to Normal's cast, from left, features Christian Peña, Tess Carr, Casey Vaughan, Stephen Riordan, Eric Lamont Newman and Jared Michael Shari. - TONY GILKINSON
A FAMILY AFFAIR: Next to Normal's cast, from left, features Christian Peña, Tess Carr, Casey Vaughan, Stephen Riordan, Eric Lamont Newman and Jared Michael Shari.

Next to Normal
Review rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
Runs through Nov. 15 at the Straz Center's Shimberg Playhouse.

A musical about a suburban family crisis doesn't necessarily scream fun night at the theater, and it isn't as big of an audience draw as, say, a singing Hannibal Lecter, but mad Theatre's Next to Normal is a spirited must-see.

The cast's vocal talent and spot-on performances enliven the play's subject matter, calling awareness to an all-too-important subject in the 21st century — the failings and persistent challenges of mental health care in the U.S. and the impact mental illness has on families. 

The story begins with mom, Diana Goodman (Casey Vaughan), who, like so many homemakers, is trying to do too much at once. Before the plot lapses into an Erma Bombeck cliché, we realize that Diana is in a bipolar manic state, making enough sandwiches for a month's worth of lunches in a domestic frenzy.

Diana's kids, one of whom has a unique bearing on the plot, get some of the best musical numbers of the show. Diana's daughter, Natalie (Tess Carr), is the classic overachiever, slaving away at her homework and piano practice to avoid being ignored by her parents. The dad, Dan (Stephen Riordan), is a seemingly easygoing guy who's sleepwalking through life and perpetually in denial, striving to put a nice face on everything. And then there's the son, the golden boy (Eric Lamont Newman), who's at the root of all the madness. 

In a lighter subplot, Natalie finds love with a lovably eccentric pothead, Henry (Christian Peña), who self-medicates with weed instead of the sundry pills his girlfriend's mom takes on a daily basis (and which she starts to dabble in herself). He isn't perfect, but he is for Natalie, who is verging on becoming as mentally unbalanced as her mother. 

The situation in the household comes to a head when everyone realizes that a tragedy can no longer be swept under the rug. Two doctors (both deftly played by Jared Michael Shari) attempt to shepherd Diana through her mental health odyssey, but no therapy will work until she confronts a past trauma and moves on.

Brian Yorkey penned the clever book and lyrics in Next to Normal, and Tom Kitt composed the tunes, performed by a live backing band (directed by Peter Belk) for mad's production. The tunes transcend the category of "rock opera," offering a wide breadth of styles, from folk to pop to jazz. The tunes are mostly winners. "My Psychopharmacologist and I" — with its' comedic "my favorite pills" interlude — offers a witty parody of the Sound of Music standard with a jazzy twist that would make Coltrane proud.

The play's downside is that we see a family at its absolute worst. Next to Normal lacks the moments that are more "normal," when Mom, Dad and the kids are laughing and connecting and loving. Instead, we get a view that's too one-sided and one-dimensional — and pessimistic. Thankfully, mad's cast makes us care about them anyway.

The actors are as natural, nuanced and organic as they can be while constantly breaking into song. Vaughan is relatable and heartrending as a woman on the brink, and O'Riordan humanizes his otherwise robotic dad, eliciting tears at the end of the play. Both Diana and Dan could have been cloying in other hands, but mad's production — thanks to Anthony Paul Gilkinson's finely tuned direction — make the Goodman family watchable despite Next to Normal's frequent lapses into melodrama.