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Next to Normal
Florida Studio Theatre

A Separate Peace
Ashley Picciallo, Leo Daignault, Stacia Fernandez and Mike Backes
Florida Studio Theatre has taken a huge risk and opened its season with the challenging musical Next to Normal, Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. It tells the story of a family coping with the mother's mental illness and her attempts to get well. This is not an easy piece for audiences; the harsh realities of how bipolar disorder can tear people apart are very much on display. In the end it rewards in the way that all great dramas do—with a catharsis. Highlights of the rock-infused score include "I Miss the Mountains," Diana's longing for a return of feelings, "You Don't Know/I Am the One," "Maybe" and the finale, "Light."

The production is capably performed by Stacia Fernandez as Diana and Leo Daignault as her husband Dan, as well as the rest of the six-member cast. All of the performers, especially Ms. Fernandez sound shrill at times, which might be partly the fault of the sound design. These roles require a great deal vocally from the performers. Before seeing this production, I watched several clips of the Broadway cast, especially Alice Ripley in her Tony Award winning performance. Her facial reactions to various things her family did or said were heart stopping. I don't know how much detail of her performance would be able to be seen 10 rows back, but the video clips are amazing. The performances in this production do not rise to this level of excellence, but all are highly professional and able to convey the excellence of the piece. The cast received a heartfelt standing ovation from the Sunday matinee audience.

The direction by artistic director Richard Hopkins is lacking in detail, characters react to each other generally when more specific reactions would add a great deal of depth. Stephen Hope's choreography helps move the action along. The set design by April Soroko is a big plus, setting up multiple playing spaces which allow the action to flow neatly from one setting to another. The six-piece band, led by Aimee Radics, is also a huge asset to this production.

Let me make it clear that this production of Pulitzer Prize winning Next to Normal blew me away. I am thrilled to have the chance to catch a professional production of this incredible piece. For people who like or love theater, this is simply not to be missed. I am grateful to Florida Studio Theatre for giving us a chance to experience it.

Florida Studio Theatre presents Next to Normal through January 7, 2012, 1241 N. Palm Avenue, Sarasota. For tickets and performance information, please call the box office at (941) 366-9000 or visit www.floridastudiotheatre.org.

Stacia Fernandez as Diana
Mike Backes as Gabe
Leo Daignault as Dan
Ashley Picciallo as Natalie
James LaRosa as Henry
Scott Guthrie as Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine

Directed by Richard Hopkins
Music Director Aimee Radics
Choreographer Stephen Hope
Scenic Coordinator April Soroko
Costume Designer Sara J. Hinkley
Lighting Designer David M. Upton
Sound Designer Eric Stahlhammer
Production Stage Manager Kelli Karen


Photo: Maria Lyle Photography


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--William S. Oser



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