Tuesday, November 8, 2011

REVIEW: FST’s ‘Next to Normal’ is crazy good

From left Ashley Picciallo, Leo Daignault, Stacia Fernandez, Mike Backes in FST's winning production of 'Next to Normal.'

Its finger right on the pulse of the real modern family, the one with madness always bubbling near the placid surface, “Next to Normal” works tremendously well on an abnormal number of levels.

Featuring music by Tom Kitt with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama recipient and winner of three Tony Awards is a rock musical that manages to deftly make the most of melancholy, with sharp satire, smart observations, provocative questions and endearing humor.

Credit Florida Studio Theatre for not just doing an excellent job with an intricate show of often cleverly matched vocals performed from a tight stage and three risers over the rousing sonics of an accomplished live band but taking a chance:

The subject matter is heavy and the characters sing or say just about every dirty word George Carlin ever rifffed on.
But this cussing isn’t without purpose.
Just like nothing in the potent production isn’t without purpose.

Even if at the end audience members are forced to find his or her own definition of “normal” — or decide if it’s OK to just be “next to normal.”
Or maybe conclude “normal” is a silly, way-too subjective and hurtful word, one that deserves banished from the lexicon.

The mother Diana (Stacia Fernandez) grapples with bipolar disorder that manifests itself in a most frightening way at times. Namely in the form of her son Gabe (Mike Backes), resulting in a jolting surprise to anyone not paying close attention.

Natalie (Ashley Picciallo) plays the neglected, good girl daughter who begins to stray from her high school studies after meeting pot-smoking boyfriend Henry (James LaRosa). She quickly leapfrogs his occasional bong blasts for drugs-n-clubs benders largely fueled by Mom’s powerful, prescription stash.

Dan (Leo Daignault) is the father forced to make tough decisions regarding his wife’s well being. Scott Guthrie plays both doctors charged with treating Diana.

The show is sans flat characters — save for the doctor, who makes the most of his relatively perfunctory but often hilarious role — and the other actors shine in their juicy, largely unprecedented parts. The songs interweave wonderfully with just enough spoken lines salted throughout to create an even stronger ebb and flow.

“Next to Normal” might not be for everybody but it’s must-see performance art for anyone interested in what the exciting possibilities are in musical theater.

Details: Nov. 2-Jan. 1, FST’s Keating Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Tickets: $29-$39. Information: 941-366-9000 or www.florida studiotheatre.org.

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