20
Apr
13

Next To Normal

Next to Normal

Music by Tom Kitt and Book & Lyrics by Brian Yorkey

Oscar Theatre Company

QPAC Cremorne

18th April – 4th May 2013

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

It’s got to be one of our greatest fears, up there with shark attacks, road accidents, plane crashes and public speaking; the prospect of losing our mental faculties has got to be one of the most terrifying things in a lifetime. I’m already terrified of losing my memory. Maybe it’s why I write. Maybe it’s why I Instagram. Maybe it’s why I married Sam (Mr XS has a memory like an elephant, which makes up for mine, which is more comparable to a butterfly with an average life span of seven or so days). Maybe it’s why The Notebook feels so personal and I’m unable to watch it without crying my eyes out and leaving a pot of tea to go cold. EVERY TIME. And we’re not even going to mention Silver Linings Playbook.

 

Theatre is a mirror. And what I see in Next to Normal is a woman who lost control a long time ago. And nothing anybody can do will help her regain it. That’s terrifying.

 

In Australia we know that one in four people suffer from a diagnosed mental health condition. I know; I’ve linked to a source that states it’s one in five (the 2007 ABS figure) but did you know that Sam has a day job in the upper echelons of STEPS Group Australia? He says it’s now one in four. And I believe him. Think about that. That’s somebody you know (or several people you know). Or…it’s you.

 

We also know that the statistics are usually the last we hear of it. Chronic depression and mental illnesses, more often than not, just don’t rate a mention. In fact, there’s an awful lot of discussion about discussing mental illness. We’ve all shared the Facebook meme or re-tweeted somebody’s sensitive plea for greater tolerance, support and understanding of mental illness (R U OK?). Terrific! Great job! Now, where’s our greater tolerance, support and understanding of mental illness?

 

Standing in this room,

Well I wonder what comes now.

I know I have to help her,

But hell if I know how.

And all the times that I’ve been told

The way her illness goes.

The truth of it is no one really knows.

 

– Dan Goodman, Next to Normal

 

The Pulitzer Prize winning Next to Normal boasts an intelligent book, which gives us a glimpse into the simple horrors of living every day in an unstable way, and great insight into what it must feel like to live with a mentally unstable person. The impact on loved ones is horrendous, and the end result of long-term mental illness can be disastrous on several levels.

 

549701_10151373546983379_1584428554_nIf you happened to come across, as I did (nerd alert), the reviews of the original Off-Broadway production in 2008, you might have noticed among them, the Observer’s John Heilpern’s reflection on the show as being “kitschy, twitchy, depressing”. And perhaps it was, in its second life, Off-Broadway before a few (more) rewrites. The greatest challenge of staging any theatrical piece is surely to bring it into a place of relevance for the actors and audience and in this director Emily Gilhome has outdone herself. Resisting the temptation to take certain characters and scenarios completely off the scale of believability, as may have been the case in earlier productions elsewhere, Gilhome gives us a beautifully realised vision. This Next to Normal is astutely directed and unflinchingly lays bare the bones of depression, the breakdown of the family unit, the medical and pharmaceutical shenanigans along the way, and suicide. Mr Heilpern should see this production. It’s disturbing.

 

The bitter brilliance of Next to Normal is that it doesn’t answer any of our questions about mental illness or about the wide range of treatment options available. In fact, it sees us walking away with even more questions. This theatrical piece is in fact a shattered mirror. Can you see something of yourself? Terrifying.

 

On opening night, the opening number (Just Another Day) suffered from a couple of sound and pitch issues, and for me, what came across as unusually (for an opening night) low energy. However, to anyone unfamiliar with the show it was probably fine; a gentle start, as if we had the support band on stage (and the band actually IS on stage and you know I love seeing the band on stage!) to psyche us up and help ease us into a plot that then puts us through the wringer. A tip for anybody who hasn’t yet watched the YouTube clips of other productions of Next to Normal… don’t. See this production first. I’m sure that my early disappointment was only due to my obsession, which I have mentioned in a previous post, with the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions.

 

Magically, the sound improved after interval, as it so often does at QPAC.

 

Let’s talk about this wonderful, spirited, talented cast. I love the people Oscar is able to bring out of the woodwork. Actually, of course we’ve seen most of them somewhere before but in Oscar’s hands, I suspect we’re seeing much more of that which they’re capable. You’ll notice I have a couple of bones to pick but don’t worry, there’s nothing that takes away from the overall impact of the show; it’s exceptional. Every performer here has taken their role by the throat and given it a good shake before stepping inside the skin of it, almost like the demon in the underrated, unnerving movie Fallen *shivers*

 

Anyway, I have to tell you that my new favourite performer in Brisbane is the insightful Siobhan Kranz, who we saw as Wendla in Oscar’s 2011 production of  Spring Awakening, another Queensland premiere. Unfathomably, Kranz mentions in her bio a desire to forge a career BEHIND THE SCENES in the music industry but I hope this ambition remains unrealised for a good while yet. Sorry, Siobhan. Her Natalie is petulant, resistant and finally forgiving and supportive, the last man standing so to speak, necessarily becoming her father’s rock. A faultless performer in this instance, Kranz is a keeper.

 

Tom Oliver (whose hilarious performance as Ron Weasley in A Very Potter Musical was just SO GOOD) beautifully underplays Natalie’s stoner boyfriend, Henry. These two are perfectly matched and together they proffer a true sense of optimism and the importance of keeping hold of hope, which I’ll come back to later. I know. Bear with me. Make a coffee if you must. Henry was Sam’s favourite character. Or, Oliver was Sam’s favourite performer. He’s not sure and the fact that he is unsure about how to phrase that tells me that Oliver is going to be a fave for many more patrons. I should also mention that his appearance in Next to Normal is in between international engagements so we are lucky to have him for this strictly limited Brisbane season. With his (Hey) duets with Kranz – there are three of them – Oliver takes us safely each time into the relative calm of the eye of the storm, while chaos continues to swirl all around them.

 

 

James Gauci, in a beautifully gauged act of confidence and charisma (we expect nothing less from this performer now) plays both Diana’s doctors. Gauci gets it just right, giving us the perfect blend of scary rock star and genuinely concerned medical professional. There’s a lovely, gentle moment towards the end of the show, when he connects with Dan Goodman, and we see how well he fits the shoes of this second character particularly. And look, I’m just putting it out there; as much as I love to see Brisbane talent stay in Brisbane…what is Gauci still doing in Brisbane?! Let’s hope we see one of my favourite overachievers in front of larger audiences in a bigger city sometime soon. Sure, of course, if that’s what HE wants.

 

Matt Crowley makes an admirable stage debut in the shoes of Gabe Goodman. Crowley’s brightest moments match the bold as brass lighting levels during I’m Alive, his superb duet with Natalie (one of the best numbers of the night, Superman and the Invisible Girl), and in more silvery (ghostly?) tones during Catch Me I’m Falling. His connection with Dan in the final dramatic moments finally brought reluctant tears to my eyes, and it was with Dan that I sympathised most. Chris Kellet’s sensitive, stoic Dan Goodman, the long-suffering husband, is quietly impressive. In the end, it’s his part in I Am the One (Reprise) that should be enough to bring even the toughest husbands and daddies to tears. (I do hope they go, the husbands and daddies…). To see this side of Kellet is a wonderful surprise, and to give due credit to the newcomer, Crowley plays right alongside him, right up to the devastating conclusion. It’s a cruel end, isn’t it? I HATE IT! I HATE THE END! I sobbed uncontrollably the first eight thousand times I listened to the original soundtrack on loop in my car. Let There Be Light is supposed to be the optimistic, uplifting final reminder that “it gets better”. It’s hope. I hope that works for you.

 

Unexpectedly, Alice Barbery’s Diana Goodman, the woman around whose life the story revolves, left me mostly cold. Gilhome mentions in her program notes that casting is 90% of the director’s job and as a director, of course you work with what you have. If this Diana was the best for the role we have to take Gilhome’s word for it. Barbery’s voice is beautiful, and in its lower register, and the quieter moments of contemplation or concern, absolutely perfect for the role. It’s when we get into the middle range that there are just a couple of problems with the placement, pitch and power of delivery. It’s just that it’s a thinner, more classical sound than one might expect to hear in the context, both in terms of the hardcore content and the soft-rock style of the show.

 

In spite of my harsh assessment, Barbery has an incredibly clear sense of character and she works hard to give us plenty of insight into Diana’s crippling inner battle. Hers is a frantic, busy, utterly confused and eternally wounded woman, and considering the scale and complexity of the role, Barbery gives an awesome performance. To be too critical seems unfair.

 

547534_10152771545950118_7075640_nThe production is nicely staged – it looks sublime – but the design consists of an upper level that lies too far above us and away from us, distancing me more than I would have liked from the intensity of the action and emotion. I was prepared to be in the room with these desperate people, yes indeed, with Gabe in his Off-Broadway-referenced shirtless bathroom moment (of course you know that when the show moved to Broadway Aaron Tveit inexplicably kept his shirt on. Perhaps the producers feared a storming of the stage). Overall, I liked the solid design (Timothy Wallace) but it felt like it wanted more space, and seemed better suited to a venue such as the Playhouse, while the show itself rightly belongs in the intimacy of a space like the Cremorne.

 

It’s hard work to sit through this show (and possibly to read to the end of this review!); it’s emotionally draining. But it’s worth it. Act 1 boasts so many lovely, funny, quirky moments; they are mostly Natalie’s acerbic observations, thanks to Kranz’s characterisation and comic timing, and Diana’s one-liners, delivered deadpan by Barbery and clearly tickling the fancy of not just this housewife and mother. On opening night the giggles abounded!

 

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With Emily Integrity and Humility Gilhome at the helm, Oscar Theatre Company always put on a slick show (she does slick so well). In Next to Normal we see the bar raised once again with superb staging, exquisite attention to detail (check out the medicine bottle labels!), a lighting design that completely supports the story and the characters’ journeys, AND manages to rival that of the Broadway production (Jason Glenwright), a top notch band and MD (David Law), and a combined creative effort that must make a number of aspiring theatre makers think, “THAT is the kind of theatre I want to make!” …or run for the hills. Just saying.

 

There have been times when we’ve worried that maybe we wouldn’t see Oscar again but I think we can safely say now that this dynamic, determined company is here to stay, thanks to the dedicated creative team at its core, the crowd of loyal followers and investors, and the support of QPAC.

 

If you love good theatre it’s easy to follow suit and support them. Buy the tickets. See the show. Tell your friends, tell your family and tell your friendly local barista that they can’t afford to miss Oscar’s Next to Normal. Its impact is long lasting, and the unanswered questions will keep you thinking, talking and feeling deeply for a lifetime, but it’s a short season so be super quick to book because social media is already well on the way to making this show a sell-out!

 

A Social Media Note Courtesy of our good friend Wiki:

 

Twitter (2009)

 

In May 2009, about six weeks into the Broadway Production, Next to Normal began publishing an adapted version of the show over Twitter, a social media network. Over 35 days, the serialized version of the show was published in the form of tweets, short messages utilized by Twitter, a single line from a character at a time. The Twitter performance ended the morning of June 7, 2009, the morning of the 2009 Tony Awards. The initiative earned the musical the 2009 OMMA Award for Best in Show Situation Interactive.

 

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2 Responses to “Next To Normal”


  1. 1 Chandra Ennis
    April 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Xanthe, loved your review and agreed with all you have said. Except the lack of mention of the rawness of emotion and the moments where ones body is entirely overcome with goosebumps I.e. I am the one, and You don’t know.

    I saw the 2009 Broadway production and thought Kranz’ performance easily matched that of Jennifer Damiano in the original production which is an incredible feat for a Brisbane girl. The first time i experienced this production was incredible, especially learning new things as the story unfolded.If I had one wish, it would be to see it again for the very first time. Even so, the 2nd time watching it, and 100th time listening to the soundtrack, never ceases to amaze me.

    It’s not another cliche feel good musical, and I reccommend everyone to go and see it.

    Chandra Ennis


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