In the past when the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre, or GOAT, has turned to musicals, the goal has been big, big shows complete with dance numbers. The results, in productions such as "Jekyll & Hyde" and "Aida," have been uneven.
So it's a pleasure to see that in its latest show, the Tom Kitt-Brian Yorkey musical "Next to Normal," GOAT has pared things down with a more solid, if subdued, outcome.
"Next to Normal" won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it tackles weighty subjects: mental illness, grief, drug use and abuse.
GOAT's production, directed by Michael Horn, focuses on the songs that tell the story of the Goodman family, still caught in emotional fallout over an unexpected death years ago.
With a live band in on the action, there's not much depth to the stage, causing a staging approach not unlike watching a tennis game: Characters enter stage right for a scene, characters enter stage left for a scene. This chops up the flow in places, occasionally creating the feel of watching a musical revue of the show's rock numbers.
Thankfully, the songs are competently sung and the couple at the show's core — Leesa Halstead and Wyatt Glover — hit emotional heights in many of their numbers.
Glover, in particular, has a strong musical-theater voice that resonates with sadness as he tries to hang on to his marriage and his dreams of what life was supposed to be. Halstead, for her part, runs her voice from full fighting mode to frightened mode, her expressive face always matching the tone in her voice.
Yet paradoxically, even as the production is steadier, the characters should seem more ragged. These are masses of neuroses and jangled nerves. They've been living disintegrating lives for almost two decades. Although there's plenty of emotion on display, the audience would forgive a little more rawness in them, a little more fearlessness.
Of the younger actors, Dan Middleditch makes a warm counterpoint to the frazzled Goodmans as a charismatic teen pothead who takes an interest in daughter Natalie. Jaz Zepatos, as Natalie, hits her stride with "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," though her complicated love-hate relationship with her mom doesn't always register.
In the pivotal role of Gabe, Michael Gunn makes his presence felt but sometimes seems stranded as to what emotion his face should be reflecting in light of the other characters' actions.
Mental anguish can be internalized or thrown out into the cosmos for the world to see. And maybe through a fear of seeming clownish, too much of the Goodmans' anguish is happening inside their tortured minds. What we see of it is good theater — let's see more.
'Next to Normal'
•What: A Greater Orlando Actors Theatre production of the Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey musical
•Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
•When: 8:30 p.m. today-Monday, Feb 3-6, and the following Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 9-11.
•Tickets: $20, $15 students and seniors