Stage review: 'Next to Normal' explores family grief

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"Next to Normal" can put theatergoers in a quandary. On the one hand, the show takes on big issues such as a family thrown into crisis by mental illness, grief and therapy, love and loyalty. On the other, the music is so darn catchy, you might leave humming a lively tune.

The Carrnivale Theatrics production at the New Hazlett Theater showcases what a grounded company with vision and transcendent talent can do with a single annual musical event. And this "Next to Normal" is a musical event on several levels but especially for the fine cast under the direction of Justin Fortunato. Leading the way is Daina Michelle Griffith, whom Pittsburghers know mostly as a dramatic actress in local productions, with just an occasional musical role following her Pittsburgh CLO roots.

'Next to Normal'

Where: Carrnivale Theatrics at New Hazlett Theater, North Side.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $18-$25; 412-320-4610 or newhazletttheater.org.

Here, she sets off sparks as delusional, dysfunctional Diana Goodman, a suburban mom whose life spins out of control through grief and the effects of psychotherapy and prescription drugs. She is matched by Erich Lascek as steadfast husband Dan. Mr. Lascek, a music educator at Gateway High School, delivers a heartbreaking performance as a spouse in denial but determined to stand by his family. Towering Billy Hepfinger in dual doctor roles pushes all the right buttons, from imperiousness to empathy to cluelessness.

There is nowhere to hide in a six-person cast charged with delivering solos and harmonies with emotional fanfare, and the three youngsters in the cast shine in the spotlight. Still at Carnegie Mellon, Michael Campayno has been a winning presence in other local musicals; as the Goodman's charismatic son, he lends muscular energy to the anthem "I'm Alive" as he bounds up and down Maddie Bucci's three-story set. The production's look is less industrial glitz than the Tony-winning Broadway design but potent as a home split open to bare all.

Revelations in the cast are Point Park musical theater majors Magan Dee Yantro as teenage daughter Natalie, who swings from sullen to rebellious as she endures a lifetime in her brother's shadow, and Kevin Bianchi as her determined stoner beau Henry. They tackle the highs and lows of the Tony-winning musical score by Tom Kitt, with lyrics by Brian Yorkey, without a hint of their relative inexperience.

At Sunday's performance, harmonies grew tighter as one emotional wallop built on another and the 21/2-hour show (including intermission) barreled toward the wrenching resolution. After the show, the cast and several mental health professionals stuck around for an informative talk-back. They'll do it again after the Thursday show.

theaterreviews

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com First Published June 26, 2012 12:00 AM


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