Review: Next to Normal

Words by: Sam Herriman

Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Next to Normal is an exceptional production. From the very first chord it grabs you by the scruff of the neck, holds you under a relentless wave of emotion, and doesn’t let go until it’s hung you up to dry with the strange sensation that you’ve just returned from a tremendous adventure.

Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s show is about as intimate as musical theatre can be. Diana Goodman and her family – husband Dan, son Gabe, and daughter Natalie – live in suburban America, a seemingly ‘normal’ family who spend the show grappling with Diana’s escalating mental illness. It’s a delicate portrait of a life that – while perhaps not directly relatable for much of the audience – is only a stone’s throw from reality, making the jokes a little bit funnier and the emotional beats land a little bit harder. Next to Normal is just not the type of story you expect to see on stage.

Originally conceived as a ten minute workshop specifically about electro-convulsive therapy, the show was developed over nearly a decade before being produced Off-Broadway in 2008 and the next year on Broadway. After a number of regional and international productions, the show makes its much anticipated Western Australian premiere with this new production at the Heath Ledger Theatre.

Australian theatre veteran Rachael Beck plays the complex Diana – equal parts flirtatious and distraught – who has been living with a variation of bipolar disorder for around 16 years. A relapse, an oppressive round of medication from her psycopharmacologist, and the introduction of the dogged Henry (self-described as ‘lazy, a loner, a bit of a stoner’) as precocious Natalie’s suitor all work to drown Diana, before a Fight Club-esque reveal midway through the first act snaps the themes of identity, illness and family into sharp focus.

Without giving away too much of the plot machinations, which are best experienced live, Next to Normal is rare in how it respects all of its characters. In what is essentially a chamber musical (six actors portray seven characters), the show can afford the time to explain motivations and fully explore the way these characters interact and relate to one another beneath the looming spectre of Diana’s illness.

The show could easily demonise the two doctors, who act as a distillation of the medical industry, or the character of Dan, who can at times be selfish and naïve. It is to Kitt & Yorkey and the actors’ credit that every decision and every lyric works both to progress the story and to acclimate the audience with these flawed, deeply human people.

One of only eight musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Next to Normal takes musical and narrative cues from two previous recipients of the award. Shades of Jonathan Larson’s paean to love, sex, New York and rock music Rent (1996) and James Lapine/Stephen Sondheim’s deft, profound exploration of art Sunday in the Park with George (1986) are evident in both the score and libretto. Kitt & Yorkey have one foot in tradition and one foot in the future, whist still carving out a wholly original niche in the musical theatre canon.

Kitt’s music is propulsive and lively, with quick-cut songs never over-staying their welcome (as is often a pitfall in rock infused music theatre). Less a collection of tracks than fragmented ideas and motifs that work as a unified whole, I’m Alive and I Am the One are two notable exceptions. They are tour de force songs for the actors that leave a distinct, visceral impression on the ear.

Some of the ballads can at times fall flat, with Kitt stylistic approach more suited to the anthemic, soaring numbers. Yorkey’s lyrics are powerful and evocative, filled with richness and wit, even if the more narrative songs are occasionally a little clunky. Each character is given several numbers to belt out and a distinct lyrical tone that is consistent throughout the show, helping to lend authenticity to the entire piece.

The score is deceptively intricate, with multiple duets, trios and counterpoint bringing a welcome diversity to the tunes. As in all good musical theatre, the music is used as an emotive device, where just speaking lines won’t adequately convey the emotional sincerity of the scene. Characters bounce off one another, exposing denials, fears, loathing and joy through the heightened reality of song.

Shannen Alyce, Joel Horwood. Image credit: Greg Marsh
Shannen Alyce, Joel Horwood. Image credit: Greg Marsh

The cast Black Swan has assembled is superb, with Beck joined by fellow veterans Brendan Hanson (Dan) and Michael Cormick (Drs. Fine and Madden) as well as WAAPA graduates Shannen Alyce (Natalie), James Bell (Gabe) and Joel Horwood (Henry). Of particular note is Alyce, who brings warmth, depth and appropriately teenaged irascibility in a dryly hilarious and affecting performance, and Bell, who is wonderfully chameleonic in a challenging role imbued with pathos.

Direction by Black Swan stalwart Adam Mitchell is workmanlike and at times inspired; he skilfully utilised a rotating floor for maximum comic and dramatic potential, keeping the action humming along. While Bruce McKinven’s set design made brilliant and creative use of the Heath Ledger Theatre’s compact stage. The six-piece band under the musical direction of David Young ably recreates Kitt’s memorable score. At times during the ensemble numbers it was difficult to hear Yorkey’s wonderfully prosaic lyrics with clarity, but this seemed to sort itself out as the show went on.

It’s rare to find a story that demands to be told through the medium of music, but Next to Normal’s refreshingly frank depiction of mental illness – and in particular, this brand of bipolar – is one of them. With music jubilant and melancholic, seething and droll, Next to Normal runs the full gamut of emotions. I was almost moved to tears by the electricity of the performance, and judging by those around me, so were most of the audience.

It’s an absolute delight to see a small yet critically and commercially successful musical produced so professionally in Perth. Let’s hope there’s more to come.

Next to Normal is running at the Heath Ledger Theatre until November 22.