Next to Normal – Review

(l to r) Robert Markus as Gabe, Kathryn Akin as Diana, John Ullyatt as Dr. Madden in NEXT TO NORMAL.  Photo by Trudie Lee.

 Next to Normal

Sept 11 to 30, 2012

Max Bell Theatre

Listen to my live review on CBC Eyeopener on Monday September 16th


I might as well just come out and say it. I am so proud of Theater Calgary for starting their season off with Next to Normal. It’s a thoroughly modern, unique and risky production and I heartily applaud their gutsy decision to bring this little known (in Calgary), but critically acclaimed huge Broadway hit to their stage. I believe Calgary audiences are sophisticated and curious enough to embrace this kind of intelligent and entertaining programming and not just settle for the same old rehashes of “safe” plays. Yes CATS and Shirley Valentine and To Kill A Mockingbird…. I mean you!

OK, soapbox put away. Let’s get to the business of reviewing.

Next to Normal opened on Broadway in 2009, was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won three including Best Original Score. Perhaps even more importantly, it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming just the 8th musical in history to receive that honour.  (Two other such honorees you may know of being Rent and A Chorus Line.)

The story centers on the Goodmans, a seemingly normal family that is being slowly torn apart by the fact that Diana, the mother, has been suffering from bipolar disorder for the past sixteen years. Also called manic depression, bipolar condition is a mood disorder that results in serious, even drastic changes in personality alternating between highs (mania) and lows (depression). The family has pretty much learned to take it day by day with Diana as they never really know which side of her they’re going to get. Even more upsetting is that despite all the pills and the therapy Diana is getting no better and is perhaps even worse. As the musical opens, we witness Diana’s latest mental crises and the story chronicles her attempts to get better, this time through some pretty extreme types of treatment. In addition to Diana’s struggle, the musical presents a refreshingly realistic look at the effects of bipolar disorder on the family and how each of them is affected and compromised as a result of the illness.

With a subject like this, Next to Normal could have easily been a heavy dramatic play. But what makes this such an interesting production is that Tom Kitt who wrote the music and Brian Yorkey who did the book and lyrics decided to tell this story in short, flashcard type scenes using rock music and singing that pretty much populates the entire performance.

The music comprises mainly of electric guitar and bass with a lot of heavy drum beats and occasional softer rock ballad type numbers that use acoustic instruments for effect. None of the tunes are particularly memorable or hummable but in this musical that’s okay, it’s the lyrics that count. Concise and clear, clever and intellectual, emotional and raw, the lyrics to the songbook of Next to Normal carry the story and bring it to life for us. When Diana, dulled by the medication she’s taking, longs for an end to the fog, she sings a number called I Miss the Mountains about wanting to be able to feel the highs and lows of life again.  It’s a beautifully articulated number that elicits the kind of sympathy and understanding mere dialogue wouldn’t  be able to create.

Another song, this time sung by Diana’s daughter Natalie, called Superboy and the Invisible Girl, powerfully illustrates her feelings of neglect and abandonment because of her mom’s situation. Again it’s raw and real and the lyrics tug at you without an ounce of drippy sentiment.

Sound, however was a big issue in the performance I saw.  With a sound mix that saw the music thoroughly overpowering the singing on almost all counts, I found myself either straining furiously trying to hear the lyrics or simply not being able to hear the words at all. It was a frustrating and headache-inducing experience that I’m sincerely hoping they quickly resolve as this is a show where you don’t want to miss a word.

Especially since they are sung by some impressively strong performers. Kathryn Akin as Diana delivered a performance with flawless tonal and emotional accuracy. She gracefully imbued her character with intelligence, humour and a believably fragile mental state.  Akin’s duality of a strong yet subtle at times singing voice brought lovely nuances to this complex character. Sara Farb as Natalie, the daughter was stunning in her frustration and pain communicated through strong and emotional singing. Robert Markus as Gabe, the son, plays a pivotal and surprising role in the musical (no spoilers in this review) and was without a doubt the strongest and most compelling voice on stage. A surprise standout for me was Michael Cox in his supporting role as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend.  Natural in his acting and captivatingly sweet in his singing, Cox was a small gem of a performance to watch.

I wish I could praise the cast as a whole, but there was one disappointing weak link for me. Rejean Cournoyer as Dan, the father, lacked any real chemistry with the other cast members and his somewhat stiff and forced performance made it seem as though he was uncomfortable in the role. To add insult to injury, his voice while passable, just didn’t seem up to the demands of this production. It wasn’t a tragic turn by any stretch, but with such a good cast around him, Cournoyer seemed lacking.

Rounding out the production were Cory Sincennes’  simple and stripped down set designs composed of steel girder-like structures supporting two catwalks, turning the stage into a  three-storey structure for the actors to populate.  Chairs and tables were wheeled in and out when needed, but the effect was distinctly bare with dark lighting and ethereal rain effects in the background. Minimal sets don’t always succeed or enhance a production, but in this case I think the choice worked. Perhaps a kind of a metaphor for the dark and stark emotions the entire family is feeling or at the very least providing no distraction from the powerful emotions being communicated in the show, the unadorned set was something I was actually grateful for.

If there is one final thing to be appreciative of in this production, it’s Ron Jenkin’s sure handed direction.  An immense talent, Jenkins once again populates his stage with visually interesting movement and some tremendously courageous performances. Whether the scene was dark and upsetting or lighter and even humorous, Jenkins never over-wrings the emotion out of the script and instead trusts in his audiences’ acumen to connect strongly with the action.

Next to Normal is a roller coaster of a story where nothing is neatly solved or even solved at all. Dubbed an anti-musical by some, there is most definitely no light and breezy ‘Surrey with a fringe on top’ kinda number. And while I certainly don’t think that every musical should aspire to this type of production, I really respect the story Next to Normal tells and how they tell it. It is utterly unique to see a musical tackle real, messy, disturbing situations and present it an entertaining but also thought-provoking kind of show. A show that doesn’t talk down to its audience or try to heavy handedly teach us something about mental illness. Next to Normal present the reality and then lets its audience sit and think about it. This is definitely the kind of theatre I embrace and if Calgarians are willing to try something new, I think they’ll feel as excited by this production as I am.


For the guys – Don’t let a bipolar female character scare you away. Mental illness knows no gender and neither does this story. The issues and emotions will affect you deeply as you find ways to relate to each of the characters in this show. SEE IT

For the girls – No ‘crazy lady’ stereotypes here. The women in Next to Normal are treated with respect and offer up remarkably realistic portraits of emotion and frustration and even moments of joy. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – Probably not the feel good musical that you gravitate towards and this may be too modern and alternative for you. But if you want to stretch yourself and see what a musical about real life problems is like, this is the one to go to. MAYBE SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – It’s an important and compelling show to add to your cannon and happily, Theatre Calgary presents a performance worthy of all the accolades. SEE IT

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