On arrival at the Citadel Theatre for the opening night of the rock musical Next to Normal, I noticed that the piped-in background music was interesting…Peter Gabriel, John Mayer, and a cover of a John Hiatt song, among other selections. I guess I found that surprising because I was attending a musical, and somewhere deep inside I expected some cliché Glee-ish hits. It was only the first of many pleasant surprises. The play won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2009 and a Pulitzer Prize the following year, and is anything but cliché.
The storyline follows a modern family as they struggle with the mental illness of the mother, Diana, and the devastating effect it has on her husband and teenaged daughter- not what one expects of a musical plotline (this was the first time that I have heard the word psychopharmacologist used in a song lyric). We get very close to this family, experiencing small moments of dread, when symptoms unexpectedly appear, and we feel overwhelmed along with them as they navigate the seas of therapy and medical interventions.
This production by Hammer Entertainment is terrific. The simple set, which almost disappears at times, allows the viewer to fill in the blanks, picturing the home, the doctors` offices, a school music area, and a hospital, based on the dialogue and on our own preconceptions. A multi-level, black construction, it also housed the five-piece band onstage (Jason Gladstone: guitar, John Stephen: bass, Rebecca Macfarlane: violin, Sarah Honeyford: cello, Vince Waters: drums).
There was not a weak link on the stage. Stacy Milford ownsthe character of Diana Goodman. Her voice was powerful and true, and her acting was thoroughly believable, pulling the audience into Diana`s world. Jason Dick`s portrayal of her stalwart, loyal husband, Dan, was heart-wrenching, convincing and richly musical. Diana imagines their son, Gabe, and Erik Kopacsi brings him to life. Kopacsi gives a beautifully textured performance in this challenging role; innocence and sweetness when seen through the eyes of Diana, and a certain malevolence as the symptom (and unintentional cause) of her illness. As the daughter Natalie, ironically the invisible one of the two children, Nicole Cino struck all the right chords; a very powerful and appealing voice, and an actor who inhabited a very believable and complex character. Her boyfriend, Henry, is played by Scott Beaudin. Henry is the only character who is inside the family as an outsider, and Beaudin walked that line beautifully. Dean Rooney plays both of Diana’s doctors. It was always a pleasure when he walked onto the stage. In one scene, he is called upon to live out Diana`s fantasy of him as a `rock star` doctor. His super-fast morph from character to character was brilliant.
Next to Normal is very entertaining, but is not light entertainment. At times it is hard work. The subject matter is difficult, the characters are uncomfortably believable. Their predicaments parallel those we see in our own lives, families and neighbourhoods. The music is beautifully handled but the songs, like the dialogue and the action, express complicated, difficult feelings, and that takes work. Like most things that require work, however, it is also very rewarding.
This production, directed by Shari Vandermolen, is very accomplished and possesses all the professionalism of a Broadway play. Coming out the doors of the theatre into the drizzle of a Hamilton night, I could as easily have been exiting onto a New York backstreet. I am grateful for having experienced this play, and even with its subject issues, recommend it.