Next to Normal: more interesting for the local talent than the prize-winning material

Chris Lam has directed Next to Normal.

If you don’t have production shots, I guess a poster will do. 

The cast is talented and the production is musically precise, but Next to Normal is not a well-built musical—despite having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010.

Act 1 is mostly boring because the protagonist, a housewife named Diana who has bipolar disorder with psychotic features, is passive. Stuck in her own suffering, she ignores her teenage daughter Natalie. Diana’s relationship with her son is really all about her. Diana dismisses her husband Dan as boring and uncommunicative and, when he tries to help, she sings an angry song in which she tells him that he couldn’t possibly understand the pain she endures.

There’s not a lot to invest in here. Dan says that he was attracted to Diana’s wild spirit, but we never see the beauty and the love that were lost and may be recovered, so how can we care about Diana or her marriage?

Characters keep bumping into the walls of this box canyon of a structure, repeating themselves: Natalie complains again and again about being ignored; and Dan keeps telling us that he made a promise when he married Diana and he’s sticking to it.

Act 2 gets a whole lot better because Brian Yorkey, who wrote the book and lyrics, finally gives Diana something to do: electroconvulsive therapy has knocked out 19 years of her memory—which is unlikely, a narrative contrivance, but still she has to actively figure out what’s wrong with her life and how she’s going to change it. The answers are simplistic: they lean too close to the single-cause theory of mental illness that’s the default explanation in most popular entertainment, but at least she’s doing something and things change.

Under Peter Abando’s musical direction, the six-piece orchestra treats us to a tight and textured reading of Tom Kitt’s rock score. And Marie West is doing a very nice job with Diana. (There’s an A cast and a B cast. I’m going to be talking about the A cast here.) West has a fruity, Julie Andrews soprano and she brings touching restraint to her characterization. Mark Wolf, who plays Dan, also impresses vocally, taking his tenor to crazy heights. (In terms of vocal range, this musical asks a lot of all of its singers.) On opening night, West’s acting performance improved as the material deepened, but he needs to hone his acting chops.

Vocally, Daren Dyhengco employs an insinuating, sometimes breathy sexiness that suits the son. Sean Anthony is persuasively frank and compassionate as a psychiatrist, and Blake Sartin is winningly understated as Henry, Natalie’s love interest.

As Natalie, Katrina Teitz delivers one of the most interesting characterizations of the evening. There’s a lot going on in there. Teitz’s Natalie is tightly wound and sometimes abrasive, but you can also sense the terror with which she reacts to hope.

Director Chris Lam’s design for Next to Normal is suitably stark: the stage is almost bare except for a table and some chairs. Given that aesthetic, I can understand the theoretical justification for Jonathan Kim’s moody lighting, but Kim relies so heavily on side lighting that the actors are forever casting shadows on one another’s faces.

Overall, this is quite a handsome production of a not very good musical.

NEXT TO NORMAL Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Music by Tom Kitt. Directed by Chris Lam. A West Moon Theatre production at Studio 16 on Friday, February 9. Continues until February 17.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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