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Review

In this 'Next to Normal,' the message is loud but not clear

"Next to Normal," the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a suburban mom's struggle with bipolar disorder, first arrived in Los Angeles in 2010, on its national tour. I remember feeling electrified — at once thrilled and unnerved — by the bracing honesty of Brian Yorkey's book and lyrics, the jagged edges of Tom Kitt's rock-infused score and the inventive staging by director Michael Greif that enabled a cast of six to fill the Ahmanson Theatre.

Even so, mine was among the voices in the lobby at intermission speculating that the show might work better in a more intimate space.   

The current revival at the 99-seat Pico Playhouse, directed by Thomas James O'Leary, is an opportunity to test this theory. But an unexpected factor threatens to invalidate the whole experiment: The performers are miked, though they sing as though they're not. Not only can the vocals be oppressively loud, but they feel canned — the opposite of intimate.

The band is live, but it's hidden behind the stage and also blasted through the sound system. And the balance is off: At least on opening night, the music managed to drown out entire verses of lyrics. 

But let's hope that the sound design (by Fritz Davis) is a work in progress. Even if not, the cast and direction are otherwise so strong that the production still casts a powerful spell. 

The small set (designed by Jeff Cason and lighted, dimly, by Matt Richter, Adam Earle and Andrew Schmedake) offers no distractions from the play's painful atmosphere: the inescapable claustrophobia of the nuclear family, where members feel alone even when they're all singing the same song, in harmony.

Michelle Lane stars as Diana, a frazzled but upbeat housewife, witty and relatable, an Erma Bombeck for the new millennium — or so she initially appears. "My son's a little … and my daughter, though a genius, is a freak," she sings one morning as she cheerfully sends her husband and two teenagers out into the world. It's not until she starts frantically preparing sandwiches nobody wants that we — the audience and her family alike — realize that her zippy high spirits are the harbingers of a manic episode.

Her long-suffering husband, Dan (Nick Sarando), takes her to a series of doctors (all played with sympathy by Randal Miles), who prescribe a dizzying variety of medications. The play is especially effective in these sequences, using a sly theatricality to depict the patient-psychopharmacologist dynamic as a twisted romance.

The drugs "work," except that Diana doesn't feel like herself. The Tony-winning score's most haunting number, "I Miss the Mountains," is her love song to the highs and lows of her illness. But once she's flushed the pills, the electroshock treatments begin.

Diana's family suffers too, particularly her daughter, Natalie (the lovely, impressive newcomer Isa Briones), whom she neglects while doting with an Oedipal intensity on her snarky son (Harrison Meloeny). A driven student and classical pianist, Natalie meets a boy, Henry (the charming Blaine Miller, resembling a young John Cusack), who tries to loosen her up with jazz improvisation and pot. Soon, Natalie is stealing meds and bombing performances in her desperation to be noticed by her parents.

The first act is dazzlingly constructed, with a series of revelations that make us radically readjust our understanding of the family's dynamics. But once we've gotten the picture — a grim picture indeed — the plotting starts to falter. Characters continue their practice of alternately withholding and disclosing critical pieces of information, but by the second act, we already know the information. Story lines are left hanging, and lingering questions are swept under the rug by an unpersuasive, hopeful finale, "Light." 

Diana's disorder isn't just a response to the pressures of modern life. It's rooted in a specific tragedy. Although useful dramatically, this "explanation" of her illness transforms her from an everywoman to a psychological case study. "Next to Normal" is most moving, paradoxically, when it makes the case that the difficulty of communication isn't a glitch that can be repaired with the right drug: The difficulty of communication is the status quo. It's just normal. 

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"Next to Normal," the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 25. $30-$34.99. (310) 204-4440 or www.picoplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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