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Next to Normal

I was in no way prepared for the first-rate, impeccably professional production this young company put together

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When I hear that a bunch of college types have formed a theater to produce one musical every summer, I think I can be excused a jaded reaction.

Carrnivale Theatrics — founded in 2009 by Point Park-er Justin Fortunato and Duquesne alum Robert Neumeyer — has since presented Ragtime, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods. This year's production, Next to Normal, would be the first I'd seen, and I went in with a bit of an attitude. "College kids? One show a year? Notoriously difficult musicals? Well ..."

Well, indeed. I was in no way prepared for the first-rate, impeccably professional production this company put together.

Next to Normal (a Tony- and Pulitzer-winner) depicts a suburban family, especially the bipolar mother, grieving a dead child. It's entirely sung-through, featuring an alt- and pop-rock score from Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brain Yorkey, and the kind of juicy roles actors would kill to play ... which is why Carrnivale and co-producer Front Porch Theatricals have attracted such a gifted array of performers.

On Maddie Bucci's extraordinary set, beautifully lit by Todd Nunn, the company, wearing Rich Preffer's flawless costumes, plows its way through this dark tale. Billy Hepfinger and Kevin Bianchi provide needed comedy in supporting roles. Erich Lascek sings the overwhelmed father with aching power, and Magan Dee Yantko is deeply moving as the battle-scarred daughter. Michael Campayno transfixes as the dead son's ghost, and Daina Michelle Griffith, as the mother, proves yet again why she is one of this city's most sought-after actresses.

Haley Dean's choreography is an intricate part of the evening's storytelling, and musical director Neumeyer makes the band sound like a full-blooded orchestra. Credit for bringing it all together goes to director Fortunato. I know people twice as experienced who couldn't create something half as good.

Enough with the hyperbole. To tell the truth, Next to Normal won't ever rank as one of my favorites; there's a Lifetime-movie quality to the story, Yorkey's writing gets stuck in angry melancholy and Kitt's repetitive score wearies.

But most of that is rendered moot by this Carrnivale production. Next summer can't come soon enough.

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