Theatre Focus: Next to Normal

19 November 2015 | 6:49 pm | Cicely Binford

Black Swan State Theatre Company ends 2015 on a high note with their final production, acclaimed Broadway hit, Next to Normal.

The anything-but-normal rock musical won a Pulitzer prize for drama, which is fairly rare for musicals at a rate of about one per decade. And BSSTC, like Pulitzer, doesn’t often dabble in musical theatre either, though perhaps this production is evidence they should definitely make a habit of it.

Next to Normal tells the story of a family in the throes of a breakdown brought on by the mother’s  struggle with bipolar disorder and debilitating grief. We watch their happy facade quickly give way to manic behaviour from mother Diane, resentment from daughter Natalie, and denial from father Dan. As Diane seeks different types of treatment ranging from medication to talk therapy and finally to ECT, the family unit is pushed to the brink, and it becomes unclear what (or who) will survive the aftershocks.

This musical is absolutely packed with songs and falls just short of being completely sung through, so most of the characters make decisions and work through issues through song. There are short bits of sharp dialogue and gallows humour woven through this very emotionally difficult terrain, and the dark, reflective turntable set designed by Bruce McKinven makes scene changes fluid and seamless.

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Director, Adam Mitchell, has assembled a stellar cast gifted with gravity-defying vocal range and prowess, and they approach the material with understated sensitivity and care. Rachael Beck (Diane) stands at the centre of this story, and though she is tasked with portraying a person reaching the extremes, she refrains from caricature and finds her own version of Diane’s illness.

Dan, the father, is nearly tailor-made for Brendan Hanson; he’s a patient, “boring” (the wife’s words, not mine) counter to the manic Diane, and a tender mediator between her and daughter Natalie (Shannen Alyce). Natalie deals with her mother’s crisis by creating a crisis of her own, which she faces with her new boyfriend Henry (Joel Horwood). Horwood is a soothing balm for both Natalie and us, with a sweet, giving presence in the ensemble. Diane’s various doctors are played by Michael Cormick, whose J. Peterman-esque, clinical demeanour belies an extraordinarily tender tenor vocalist underneath.

Mitchell and team have a hit show on their hands, and its success bodes well for their next foray into musical theatre in 2016: Clinton The Musical. 

Originally published in X-Press Magazine