Just when pompous period melodramas like The Phantom of the Opera seemed to have cornered the market on serious musical theater, Next To Normal ran off with a Pulitzer Prize, among many other honors. This inventive oddity, deftly produced by Southern Rep, might be characterized as the revenge of the middle class. It's contemporary, suburban and a maelstrom of psychological torments.
The show is a soft rock opera. Almost all the narrative is sung, and a four-piece band under the direction of Jefferson Turner accompanies the impressive cast.
Bill Walker's set is a two-level abstract metallic structure, and most of the time it represents the New York home of the Goodman family.
Wife and mother Diana Goodman (Leslie Castay) has had bipolar syndrome since her son Gabe died 16 years ago at the age of 18 months. Teenage Gabe (Clint Johnson) is one of the main characters, and we realize he is a ghost in his mother's mind.
Diane's teenage daughter Natalie Goodman (Madison Kerth) is a promising musician and hopes to earn a university scholarship. She is wretchedly jealous of her dead brother, who still dominates her mother's affections. A ray of hope shines on her in the form of Henry (Matthew Thompson), a musician who falls in love with her. Husband Dan Goodman (Richard Hutton) struggles to stand by his wife and help guide her back to normalcy.
There are many laughs amid this wreckage, and they are all the funnier because they are not forced. The family turns to a doctor (Michael Krikorian) for help and also to pills. Lots of pills. When they don't do the trick, the doctor recommends electroconvulsive therapy.
The sometimes-perplexing narrative becomes clearer as you recognize how the pieces of the puzzle all fit together. The complexities are counterbalanced as cast members throw themselves into their parts with mesmerizing conviction. The singing is impressive, and Dan Zimmer's lighting mirrors the psychic fireworks of the plot.
Gradually, one realizes the allure of Diana's ghostly son has a dark side. His sweetest moments bring her perilously close to the grave, and the emotional tangle plays out interestingly. The script is more challenging than those of most musicals, and under Blake Coheley's direction the cast turns in a stunning performance. — DALT WONK