COMPELLING THEATRE AT ITS BEST
Theatre review of Theatre Calgary's Next To Normal, in co-production with Citadel Theatre September 11 - 30, 2012 at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, AB
Theatre Calgary's Next To Normal tells an emotionally captivating and truthful tale
Three years ago, I watched dancers Tara-Jean Popowich and Vincent Desjardin perform a gut-wrenching duet on So You Think You Can Dance Canada, choreographed by the incomparable Stacey Tookey, which dealt with mental disorder. This number tore my heart out and really made me think about the complexities, struggles and emotions that embody the issues of mental disorder. Last week, all of these memories came flooding back when I attended Theatre Calgary’s season opener, Next To Normal.
Next To Normal opened on broadway in 2009, after a successful off-broadway run. The show garnered three Tony Awards as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With a musical score by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next To Normal is a contemporary musical that, for the most part, is sung through. And although it is labelled a rock musical, this isn’t a Rent or Rock of Ages. The singing is legit, contemporary broadway style – think Spring Awakening or Catch Me If You Can.
I first heard about Next To Normal in the spring of 2009 when I was dancing onboard Princess Cruises. One of the other dancers in my cast was from New York and couldn’t stop raving about Next To Normal. That season was unquestionably a stunning year on broadway, with the opening of Billy Elliot – The Musical, and the long-anticipated revivals of West Side Story and Hair. Yet, Next To Normal, a modest musical in comparison, with a cast of six, was still able to make headlines and stir up conversations across the ocean.
The plot centres around Diana (Kathryn Akin), a mom and housewife who struggles with bi-polar disorder. Her husband of many years, Dan (Rejean Cournoyer) does what he can to try to help her while their teenage daughter, Natalie (Sara Farb) gets forgotten in the background. Diana’s bi-polar disorder is driven by her inability to get over the loss of her son, Gabe (Robert Markus), who died as an infant and would have been 17-years-old at the time of the musical’s story if he had lived. Frustrated and desperate, Dan takes Diana to Dr. Madden (John Ullyatt) to seek new medical treatment – however, this treatment turns out to be quite risky. While all of this is going on, Natalie struggles with adolescence and finds comfort, friendship and possible love in her high school classmate, Henry (Michael Cox).
When I walked into the Max Bell Theatre last weekend and laid eyes upon the pre-show setup onstage, I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful miniature house that was lit from within – it immediately reminded me of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. Is there a connection between A Doll’s House and Next To Normal? I couldn’t wait to watch the show and find out.
Next To Normal’s cast was absolutely sensational! It really was a spectacular display of the top musical theatre talent in Canada. As Diana, Kathryn Akin brought the house down with her amazing vocal ability and emotionally stirring performance. A veteran of the West End, The Shaw Festival, Mirvish Productions and much more, Akin’s portrayal of a mom paralyzed by the effects of mental disorder was disturbingly realistic.
Rejean Cournoyer, familiar to Canadian theatre audiences as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables for Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre Company and the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for Theatre Calgary/Citadel Theatre, also delivered an excellent performance as Diana’s husband, Dan. I remember last seeing Cournoyer in Alberta Theatre Project’s True Loves Lies (I wrote his bio for him in the playbill when I interned for the company two summers ago!). It was impressive to see him display his enormous versatility as an actor, as his roles in True Love Lies and Next To Normal were at complete opposite ends of the spectrum.
It was wonderful to see the great Sara Farb play Natalie, Diana’s teenage daughter. The first time I saw Farb was at a cabaret performance in Toronto when she sang a song by the name of Blue and I still remember how awesome her performance was to this day! It was such a pleasure to see her perform again and she definitely did not disappoint in Next To Normal. Her portrayal was honest and relatable to any kid who has ever felt that they’ve been left in the shadows of their sibling, or their parents’ messed-up lives. In addition, it was such a treat to hear her incredible singing.
Speaking of incredible singing…Robert Markus’ performance as the ghost/memory of Diana’s son, Gabe, was spellbinding! Very rarely have I heard such spectacular singing and vocal technique from a young male musical theatre performer. Markus’ rendition of I’m Alive was electrifying…when he later sang There’s A World, I had chills going up my spine. Markus’ performance was haunting and unforgettable.
Michael Cox was really sweet as Henry, Natalie’s stoner boyfriend! He combined excellent comic ability with a genuine and sincere portrayal, giving his character strong integrity and substance. As Dr. Madden, John Ullyatt also gave an honourable performance, backed by his outstanding singing.
I also enjoyed how the casting of the two kids in the family appeared to be age appropriately believable. Although I am a huge fan of broadway star, Aaron Tveit, I felt he appeared to be too old to play Gabe in the original broadway production of Next To Normal. Markus and Farb were very believable as kids in their late teens. In fact, kudos to director Ron Jenkins, who did a brilliant job of casting. Akin, Cournoyer, Markus and Farb made a great family (as ironic as that may sound) and they, along with Cox and Ullyatt all had fantastic chemistry and vocal blend together onstage.
The only thing that I didn’t like about the production, was that I often got confused about where the scenes were taking place. The set, a two-story scaffold-like structure was designed to be a versatile space that could serve as numerous locations. However, it was often hard to tell where the characters were. For instance, the upstairs centre area of the set was used as Natalie’s room, the halls of a high school, the bathroom of a club, and various other locations – and since it all appeared to be the same space, I was often bewildered as to where the characters were. Then again, this same thing happened during Alberta Theatre Projects’ production of True Love Lies, which ironically, was also about a dysfunctional family with two young adult kids, and included a two-story scaffold-like set and Rejean Cournoyer. Go figure.
At the conclusion of Next To Normal, my mind referred back to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (the opening set reminded me of A Doll’s House). Just like Next to Normal, A Doll’s House stirred up attention when it premiered in the late 19th century, as it challenged the idea of what a normal family is. At the end of the play, the heroine, Nora, makes exactly the same decision that Next To Normal’s Diana makes at the end of the musical. Coincidence? I think not.
The point is, Next To Normal reminds us that the definition of a “normal” family has long been a myth for many. This was evident even back in 19th century theatre. So, while many people may appear to have a “normal” family life, things are often very different within the walls of their home. We all have our own issues to deal with and fears to overcome – and that isn’t “next to normal”…it’s completely normal.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5