Even silence can be deafening for Diana Goodman. She's under constant barrage by the voices screaming in her head. Sometimes they are so loud she can't hear anything else in the daring rock musical "Next to Normal."

The seemingly normal soccer mom often finds herself baking a birthday cake for someone who died long ago. Or hiding in her car during her daughter's music recital. Or talking to people who aren't really there.

Diana's never-ending battle with bipolar disorder is the core of "Next to Normal," a raw and riveting musical about life in the shadows of mental illness that runs through Feb. 3 at the San Jose Rep. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt's Pulitzer Prize-winning show finds a way to match Diana's torrential emotional storms to the sounds of volcanic rock music so that we can all experience the raging forces in her head. While David Ira Goldstein's production lacks the devastating impact of the Broadway production, there's no denying the compelling nature of the musical.

Jonathan Shew, Kendra Kassebaum and Joe Cassidy in San Jose Repís co-production of Next to Normal.Photo:Tim Fuller/Arizona Theatre Company.
Jonathan Shew, Kendra Kassebaum and Joe Cassidy in San Jose Repís co-production of Next to Normal. Photo:Tim Fuller/Arizona Theatre Company. ( Tim Fuller/Arizona Theatre Compa )

Goldstein has assembled an appealing cast of gifted singers who deliver the electric rock score with sensitivity. What the production lacks is a piercing sense of intimacy that moves us to the core. This "Normal" never cuts close enough to the bone to be fully cathartic.

Certainly, it's hard to banish memories of Alice Ripley's incandescent turn as Diana in the deeply poignant Broadway production. Her Diana was so vulnerable and exposed that watching her descent into madness was wrenching. The brutality of her suffering just to make it from day to the next was palpable and unforgettable.

Here Kendra Kassebaum ("Wicked," "Leap of Faith") captures Diana's guts, the pluckiness she gamely musters in the face of gloom, but she misses the suffering behind the cheery smile.


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The Broadway veteran does have great pipes and she flows from ballads to bellows with grace. But Diana should be a more tormented soul, wracked by grief but also a little in love with volatility. She stops taking her meds because they make her feel too boring. She misses the turbulent highs and lows of her disease in the wistful "I Miss the Mountains."

Without enough anguish at the center of the drama, the narrative can be seem belabored. The relationship between Diana and her son Gabe (Jonathan Shew), for instance, never feels chaotic and messy enough to suggest a real connection. The number "I'm Alive" lacks menace and the big reveals need more bite.

Still, Yorkey and Kitt mine many compelling themes here. From teenagers disenchanted with a polluted universe to the lethargy of the long married and a daughter's fear of becoming her mother, "Normal" forces us to face the demons hiding in everyday life. The show not only demystifies mental illness, it also shines a light on the aspects of our society that have gone a bit haywire, from the ennui of the suburbs to the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. "Who's Crazy/My Psycho-pharmacologist And I" crackles with grim wit.

One of the most insightful aspects of the show is how it captures the quiet tragedies of the other family members. Diana is the heroine of this epic soap opera but it's her husband Dan (Joe Cassidy) and daughter Natalie (Andrea Ross) who pay the highest price.

The affable Dan becomes numb, so dulled by constant care-giving that he has no sense of his own needs. The tightly-wound Natalie becomes an obsessive A student because she is willing to sacrifice everything for the order she craves.

Her teenage rebellion is all about rigidity until she meets a charming stoner kid, Henry (A.J. Homes), and falls down the rabbit hole of recreational drugs. For the first time in her life, she thinks she has found an oasis of peace.

Chaos and stress become the family's regular rhythm, as habitual as a morning cup of coffee. It's only when Diana comes to terms with her darkness that the rest of the Goodmans begin to emerge from their cocoons of pain.

While this "Normal" never achieves the shattering intensity it deserves, it's still a compelling study in the things that bind us to one another and the things that drive us apart.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4 and like her at Facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage.

'next to normal'

Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt

Through: Feb. 3
Where: San Jose Rep, 101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $17.50-$79, 408-367-7255, www.sjrep.com