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Madison Theatre Guild's Next to Normal analyzes mental illness through music
Diana and her family are falling apart.
Credit:Marie Schulte

Next to Normal tells the story of Diana, a woman struggling with mental illness, and explores how her struggles affect her family. Madison Theatre Guild stages this contemporary rock musical at the Bartell Theatre through Dec. 15, donating a portion of the proceeds to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Diana's diagnosis isn't clear. Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression are all suggested by her doctors, and she's prescribed a laundry list of pills. Her family's falling apart. Her neglected daughter is on the verge of self-destruction, and her steadfast husband has run out of ways to help her. As the story unfolds, we see Diana try everything to get well: therapy, drugs and even some shockingly extreme options.

Next to Normal is an ambitious production for Madison Theatre Guild: The majority of the story is told in song, making it more of a rock opera than a rock musical, and the entire musical relies on a six-member cast. Everyone sings a lot, and most of the songs are duets or group numbers, so there's no room for a weak link.

Fortunately, Madison Theatre Guild's production boasts an extraordinary cast. Abby Stevens plays troubled Diana in a way that allows the audience to feel sympathy without pity. Michael Brunner is a great fit for her loyal husband, Dan. Chaz Ingraham bursts with youthful energy as their son, Gabe. As their daughter, Natalie, Fiorella Fernandez is lovely. She's the quintessential explosive teenage girl. In terms of vocal performances, Fernandez steals the show. Her voice is so clear it would make a Disney princess jealous. Patrick V. Sisson plays her optimistic stoner boyfriend. Sisson and Fernandez look and sound great on stage; their chemistry makes for some of the more authentic moments in the show.

Unfortunately, on opening night, there were issues with the sound. The volume of the vocals was too low and, at times, words and even whole phrases were overpowered by the small live band. Adding to the distraction was the placement of the ensemble -- deeply set upstage, behind the action -- which broke up the clean geometry of the multi-leveled set.

I also left disappointed by the script and score. Next to Normal has won three Tonys and a Pulitzer, so I had high expectations. Sadly, the characters come off as underdeveloped and one-dimensional. Dan is too perfect of a husband, and though Natalie is described by her mother as a "freak," she comes across as pretty normal. There's not much else to her character other than her perfectionism. Diana is defined solely by her struggle with mental illness. After showcasing some of the heartbreaks of mental illness, there's nothing left in Next to Normal. The conflict isn't rich enough to be satisfying. Some emotional buttons are pushed, but I wasn't challenged or changed by this show.

Still, despite a lackluster script and score, the talented cast of Next to Normal put forth top-notch performances. The actors bring a humanity to the flat characters that allows the audience to connect and identify with them, while considering what being crazy and being normal really mean.

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