Friday, July 19, 2024

Anthony Pires Jr., Sherée Marcelle and Diego Cintrón, from left, in the Central Square Theatre’s “Next to Normal.” (Photo: Maggie Hall)

A musical about a woman suffering from bipolar disorder, worsened by grief over a long-ago tragedy, sounds rather grim, and yet the Central Square Theater and Front Porch Arts Collective’s production of “Next to Normal” is anything but. The show, directed masterfully by Pascale Florestal, is poignant and vibrant.

“Next to Normal” centers around the Goodman family: Diana (Sherée Marcelle) and Dan (Anthony Pires Jr.) and their children Gabe (Diego Cintrón) and Natalie (Cortlandt Barrett). Diana has long been battling bipolar disorder, buoyed by a host of medications that steady her moods but don’t make her feel like herself. Dan busies himself with work and doing what he can to support her, Gabe comes in and out as he pleases and Natalie is left largely to her own devices, overachieving in a largely futile attempt to get her parents’ attention. It’s intense, but not all sad. It’s actually quite funny at times, with moments relatable to just about anyone who has struggled with their mental health. “He knows my deepest secrets,” Diana says of her therapist. “I know his name.”

We’re plunged into the home (with set design by Erik D. Diaz that is artful and effective) without much context 16 years into Diana’s diagnosis. Frustrated and tired of being numbed out by medication, she decides she prefers the highs and lows over the nothingness and stops taking it. Marcelle’s acting is excellent – she portrays Diana with nuance and care – and her voice is even better, with a rendition of “I Miss the Mountains” that evokes chills. 

Other members of the family, and even ensemble characters Henry (Dashawn McClinton), Natalie’s sweetly devoted love interest, and doctors Fine and Maddox (Ricardo “Ricky” Holguin), are essential to the narrative, and therein lies the reason “Next to Normal” truly works.

The stakes increase with a twist at the end of the first act and you realize how much you’ve grown to care about this family and what happens next, thanks to solid acting across the board. Barrett especially shines as a teenager who’s out of her depth and desperate for a normal family. With an exquisitely strong voice, especially on “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” she’s a powerhouse in conveying the struggles of growing up with a mother who says, “I love you as much as I can.”

Thoughtful lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt help the audience feel each character’s struggles and triumphs. The songs, which range from pop rock ballads to gentle reprises, are well-placed and include several successful group numbers. When characters break out into song, it feels authentic, not forced, and Katie Bickford’s five-piece band is excellent, if a little loud at times. 

In addition to bringing light to how kids are affected by parents’ illnesses, the musical raises questions about how we treat mental health conditions: “You wonder which is worse: The symptom or the cure?” Gabe asks. And Florestal, by making the Goodmans Black – it’s the first New England production to do so – reminds us of racial disparities in mental health treatment.

It doesn’t wrap up neatly, but chooses a more ambiguous ending that rings realistic and honest. Diana isn’t cured; she hasn’t become “normal.” Her journey isn’t over, and neither is anyone else’s. But the central message of the musical shines through: That’s okay.

  • Next to Normal,” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and directed by Pascale Florestal. Presented by the Front Porch Arts Collective and Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge, extended through June 30.