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article imageReview: Smaller space gives 'next to normal' intimate feel in Toronto Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Sep 9, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - Many contemporary stage musicals, especially big ones, can't help reminding you of the old “Futurama” line: “You can't just have your characters announce how they feel. That makes me feel angry!” That advice could have helped “next to normal”.
Brian Yorkey's and Tom Kitt's 2008 rock opera, about a woman's struggle with bipolar disorder and how it affects the lives of her family, has been showered with praise and awards (including three Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize) since its debut. It's full of strong subject matter, with a powerful story worthy of intense personal drama – which is why I find myself wishing book author/lyricist Yorkey had chosen to make next to normal into a straight stage play without music. It's not that I don't like musicals, or that you can't do material like this in a musical format. But the quality should be consistent, and Kitt's score for normal swerves between the emotionally riveting and the flatly uninspired, while Yorkey's lyrics tend to tell you more than you need to know. A non-operatic format might have allowed for more variety in the tone and made the whole thing seem less melodramatic.
normal is back in Toronto, in a small-scale production at Lower Ossington Theatre (LOT) this month. This was my second time seeing the show – the first being the touring production, which made its Toronto debut in 2011 at the Four Seasons Centre with the brilliant Alice Ripley in the lead. Ironically, I actually preferred LOT's version, if only because the theatre's smaller space makes the show more intimate and therefore suits its domestic setting better. It's an independent production with a youthful, semi-professional cast (some of whom are recent theatre grads), and Heather Braaten's superbly choreographed direction fills the show with energy and life. Michael Galloro's set, while similar to the scaffolding of the original version, cuts it down to two storeys (by necessity) and makes it both more convincing as a suburban home and less intimidating.
Sheridan College grad Kylie McMahon leads the show as Diana Goodman, a wife and mother who has lived with the disorder and accompanying hallucinations for years. We see how her manic episodes upset routines for her husband Dan (Mark Willett), teenage daughter Natalie (Jacqueline Martin) and son Gabe (Graham Fleming). I won't give away her most consistent and dangerous hallucination, which plays sort of like an early Fight Club-style twist, but it eggs her on to reject her meds, which leads to an attempted suicide, questionable medical treatment, a bout of electroconvulsive therapy and severe memory loss. Meanwhile, Natalie gets involved with classmate Henry (Colin Jones), but dealing with Diana's struggle pushes Natalie to rebellion.
There's something to say for a musical that honestly aims to depict the ugly realities of bipolar disorder, from the point of view of both the sufferer and those witnessing from the outside. But a great subject alone does not necessarily a great musical make. Alongside a few wonderful tunes like Natalie's “Everything Else” or Diana's “I Dreamed a Dance”, you also get unmemorable, derivative pop tracks with over-expository lyrics. Dan, in particular, gets stuck with a lot of awkward, needless musical monologue: “Standing in this room / Well I wonder what comes now / I know I have to help her / But hell if I know how...” or “How could she leave me on my own? / Will it work, this cure? / There's no way to be sure / But I'm weary to the bone...” and so on. The relentless telling, as opposed to showing, becomes tiresome very quickly.
The young cast gives normal the atmosphere of a community or college play, but they put a lot of enthusiastic effort into it. The youth issue isn't a problem for Martin, Jones or Fleming, since their characters are still teens, and Martin is excellent throughout. While McMahon doesn't have Ripley's dramatic range, she has a terrific voice for the challenging material and handles herself well overall. Unfortunately, Willett isn't the slightest bit convincing as a middle-aged father, and his acting lacks the emotional dynamics that the role of Dan requires. The main problem, though, is that a young cast, even a talented one, isn't as likely to have the life experience required to express these emotions and dilemmas to their full scope.
LOT's take on next to normal is a confident and well-honed production, but whether you like it or not depends on both your taste for this unconventional style of rock musical and your endurance of the dark, realistic subject matter. In the meantime, The Book of Mormon also returns to Toronto next week, for anybody who's looking for a kick-ass musical with wit, charm, edge and brilliant songs to spare.
next to normal runs at Lower Ossington Theatre until September 29. Some of the proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
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