Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: (Calgary) Next to Normal

(photo credit: Trudi Lee)

We’re The Perfect Loving Family
by Joe Vermeulen
Next To Normal, the hit Broadway musical about a woman and her family who cope with her bi-polar disorder has come to Calgary!
Directed by Ron Jenkins, Next to Normal tells the story of Diana, her husband Dan, son Gabe, and daughter Natalie. They, along with Natalie’s boyfriend Henry and Diana’s Doctor, Dr. Madden, are caught in the middle of Diana’s delusions and bi-polar bouts of mania and depression. As her treatment options run out, Diana is given ECT (also known as electroshock therapy). 
Opening with “Its just Another Day” Diana (Kathryn Akin) introduces her family, son Gabe (Robert Markus), daughter Natalie (Sara Farb) and husband Dan (Rejean Cournoyer) as the perfect loving family, however the opening number falls apart as she loses control and starts to become detached from reality. Each member of the family expresses how they feel and just as things seem stable with Diana’s treatment there is a revelation that stops the show. The family all start again introducing themselves in context of the new discovery. As Diana’s treatment progresses we are also shown how Diana’s condition leads Natalie and Dan down a self destructive path with her. 
Next to Normal demands a strong leading lady to carry the show and Kathryn Akin seemed to be struggling with the role. Vocally she seemed uncomfortable with some of the songs, as though they were just out of her range, and instead of playing the bi-polar disorder internally, she makes large and bombastic gestures that were at best unnecessary and at worst a distraction. They also leveled out her performance so that the times when Diana was supposed to be extremely emotional and emotive were flat, since the over-use of gestures at inappropriate times gave no contrast. That being said she nailed the comic moments of the show and despite all the arm waving was still compelling as Diana in her interactions with her family.

Stealing the show however were Sara Farb as Natalie and Michael Cox as her lovable stoner boyfriend Henry. Sarah Farb’s portrayal of the frustration and destructive relationships with her parents was absolutely compelling, and she dominated the stage during the scenes where she is at odds with Dan. Farb’s voice was wonderfully suited to the role of Natalie and the relationship of Natalie and Henry on the stage brought back the heartache and the longing of teenage love and relationships. They were the perfect teenagers. Cox’s use of touch was spot on. As Natalie would go off into drug induced frenzies he would gently hold her hand and she would calm down. He played the comic aspects of his role perfectly and had the audience on his side from the first joke. The song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” in which Natalie explains her frustrations to Henry was one of my favorite moments in the show, re-introducing Natalie after a startling revelation about her family as well as showing how Henry would not run away from her just because of the issues in her family. 
(photo credit: Trudi Lee)
Also excelling in a supporting role was John Ullyatt as the extremely charming Dr. Madden. He has one of the smallest roles in the show, and it is easy to be overshadowed by the other characters, but Ullyatt commands the stage as he brings insight, treatment and support to the family. Rejean Cournoyer’s Dan is a tortured soul who asks himself if he is crazy for staying with his wife. While his character is at times extremely selfish, Cournoyer’s portrayal is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Closing out the family is Robert Markus as Gabe. Gabe is at times a very destructive influence with Diana, convincing her to stop taking her medication and eventually allowing her the option of attempting suicide. Markus’ performance was a little less, well frankly, evil than I would have liked, but his relationship with Diana was still seductive for her in her fragile state. 
The set is very similar to the original set on Broadway, but the house is missing one floor due to the constraints of the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary. Consisting of a house built out of scaffold and truss, backed by a rain curtain, the set is an excellent adaptation to suit the space provided. Lighting design also remains very similar to the New York version, and is also very well adapted to the space. The sound design was a bit lacking, occasionally the singers were hard to hear and a bit muddled in with the orchestra, and the orchestra, particularly the percussion, seemed to be lacking a bit of oomph. 
The writing and orchestrations of the show are simply wonderful. The music recreates fractured minds and mental illness and has a distinctive musical sound, and it does it with a pit of only six musicians! The show features all sorts of sounds from classic rock, to legit and contemporary folk, to Sondheim- like shimmer. The music is the perfect underscore to Diana’s mental breakdowns and explosions, as well as drawing out the relationships of the other characters. The score also breaks several rules of the musical theatre genre, the most obvious of which is in the opening number. Most musicals button the first song, but in Next to Normal the opening number progresses and as Diana gets more and more manic the music starts to race with the rhythm section hitting the quarter notes, and strings hitting sixteenth notes, with playful uses of broken meters to make the orchestra seem like it's lurching before it finally falls apart as Diana mentally falls apart. “My Psychopharmacologist and I” is an elegant operatic waltz with a fun homage to The Sound Of Music, but ends with foreboding as the doctor pronounces “Patient Stable”. The song “Make up your mind/Catch me I’m falling” opens with the confusion of Diana’s mind on the piano and as her mind is calmed by hypnosis the piano quiets into tight harmonics with the string sections. The sequence in the second act of the three “Hey” songs is an example of both excellent storytelling and wonderful music. I find those songs compelling because they are based on everyday language between Natalie and Henry as they bump into each other three times. 
I would be remiss in this review if I did not mention the disease that the whole show revolves around, namely bi-polar disorder. Bi-polar disorder (also known as Manic Depressive disorder) sufferers have extremely erratic and severe mood swings. From the manic high to the depressive low these swings can last from hours to days or even longer. During a Depressive cycle the sufferer can have intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness, fatigue or lack of motivation, decreased interest in normal activities, withdrawal from social interaction even with family and occasionally bouts of self harm or suicide. Manic episodes include feelings of euphoria, rapid speech and thoughts but shortened concentration, decreased need for sleep, and agitated, restless or reckless behaviors. It is estimated that approximately 350,000 people in Canada suffer from bi-polar disorder and that it affects men and women equally regardless of race, ethnicity or socio-economic background.
Next To Normal is a wonderful show, with excellent performances and writing;  highly recommended. 
Parental Advisory: This show has mature themes such as mental illness, drug abuse and sex. It also contains strong language. This show is appropriate for teenagers but please use caution before bringing younger children to this show. Also the show features the use of strobelights. 

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