‘Next to Normal’ is a gripping family drama set to music

The online poster for "Next to Normal," which is playing through Sept. 16 at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

The phrase “musical drama” is applied to sweeping epics, such as “West Side Story” or “Les Miserables,” in which not all of the characters make it to the final scene. Rarely does the term fit a small, family-centered play rife with psychological issues.

Yet this is what we have in “Next to Normal,” Brian Yorkey's 2010 winner of four Tony awards and the Pulitzer Prize, currently gripping audiences at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. Director Jason Holland's tightly knit production holds audiences in thrall with its unrelenting challenges to both actor and viewer.

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While the central issue here is a middle-aged housewife dealing with a worsening bipolar condition, other themes push to the surface, including drug abuse and medical ethics. It's a formidable challenge to make these topics entertaining, but the Costa Mesa production succeeds on all counts, offering some powerful singing voices in the process.

Paramount in this ordeal — mostly sung and only slightly spoken — is the masterful performance of Elizabeth A. Bouton as the troubled mother who strives in a losing battle for coherence, then gropes for recovery of her lost memories after undergoing shock treatment. Bouton's grasp of her conflicted character is truly admirable.

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As her caring, dedicated husband, Marc Montminy delivers a deftly understated characterization backed by a strong vocal performance. His fate at the show's climax may not have been dictated by preceding events, but he handles the circumstances with aplomb.

Leianna Weaver shines as the couple's teenage daughter, attracted to her new boyfriend but fearful of exposing him to her familial problems. Trevor Coran enacts this role with the properly youthful energy it requires along with a stubborn aura of romantic persistence.

Bouton's character consults two psychiatrists, both played by Garrett Chandler, in her search for a sustainable cure. Chandler is most effective as the second, who favors the more extreme treatment.

The wild card in this deck is Gabe, the couple's older child, who appears fully grown and interacts with the others but, it's soon revealed, had died in infancy. His strained pleas for recognition are haunting and disturbing.

Under the baton of musical director Stephen Hulsey, the hidden orchestra pounds home the melodic themes of playwright Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt. These overstated moments occasionally overshadow the actors' lyrical contributions.

“Next to Normal” brutally examines the symptoms and treatment of the bipolar condition with dramatic skill and musical drive. It's a prescription powerfully filled at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

If You Go

What: “Next to Normal”

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 16

Cost: $20-$22

Call: (949) 650-5269 or CostaMesaPlayhouse.com

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