Award-winning musical conveys an important message, but is let down by its staging.

Hayes Theatre, Sydney
January 14, 2015

Broadway musicals are usually only concerned with glitz and glamour, and happily-ever-after. Not Next to Normal. This is the story of an ordinary family coping with the pressures of everyday life. At the family’s head, Diana Goodman is battling with bipolar disorder. The symptoms of Diana’s illness make a real and lasting impact on her capacity as mother and wife – there is no simple solution or fairy tale ending.

In 2010, a year after Next to Normal opened on Broadway, the musical was recognised with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Some five years later, it maintains its pertinence amid increased discussion about mental illness. Next to Normal is far from a superficial song and dance routine, it humanises issues of illness, death and drug abuse, and provides a positive contribution to the ongoing dialogue.

The book, written by Brian Yorkey (of If/Then fame), is generally compelling and serves the intent of the work without unnecessary polish. However, these foundations begin to collapse in Act II when the story loses momentum and strength. The events, dialogue and music that occur in this latter part seem only to exist for the sake of the musical’s obligatory binary form, when it might function more effectively as just a single act.

The onus to cut the flab from Next to Normal resides with Darylin Ramondo, whose direction at times seems uncertain and aimless. The short burst of choreography in “Who’s Crazy” provides momentary fun but is unbefitting, and the Act II finale is incongruously feel-good. Ramondo should also have provided more definitive blocking, and addressed her cast’s penchant for aggression and shouting as a measure of intensity. The aesthetic of the production is its only redeeming element; the black-and-white design provides a malleable world of both dreams and reality.

Tom Kitt’s score is incredibly catchy, and doesn’t rest on the laurels of its most well known songs (“I’m Alive”, “I Am the One” and “Superboy and the Invisible Girl”). Through his music, Kitt expresses the emotional flow of the narrative, and the voice of each individual character. There are witty musical jokes to match Yorkey’s lyrics, and recognisable leitmotifs of which even Wagner would be proud. But, the heavy rock style provides little reprieve, and the score tends to become a high-charged assault on the audience’s ears.

Although they are hidden behind a black screen, Alastair Smith and his 6-piece orchestra deliver Kitt’s score with finesse. Clare Kahn (cello) and Dora Maria (violin) are of particular note. These two musicians provide beautiful sonic depth even even without the luxury of a bigger string section.

Natalie O’Donnell is explosive and affecting as Diana. Her most frenetic moments in Act I are almost unbearable to watch – a testament to her investment in the character. But, because this emotional extremity is uncovered so early, it sometimes becomes hackneyed. With more variation, O’Donnell might be able to maintain the audience’s attention and provide a fuller portrayal of Diana’s erratic behaviour and tumultuous moods. This statement is also true of her vocal technique, which perfectly replicates Alice Ripley (who originated the role of Diana), but often lacks support and tone quality. O’Donnell is much stronger in moments of stillness: “I Miss the Mountains”, and the first meeting with Doctor Madden.

O’Donnell’s performance is matched by Anthony Harkin and Brent Trotter, who play her husband and son. The ensemble, on the other hand, is of mixed skill. Among them, Kiane O’Farrell’s (Diana’s daughter Natalie) singing seems strangled with noticeable intonation issues. O’Farrell’s onstage boyfriend, Clay Roberts, is completely endearing as the stoner Henry, but his acting seems more a succession of ideas than a true embodiment his character. Alex Rathgeber makes the most of his minimal supporting roles, but fails to prove his vocal ability as the rock star Doctor Madden.

The audience’s proximity to the stage would normally be a source of excitement and electricity, but in this context, it sometimes proves too close for comfort. The sound design is largely to blame for this, with recurring balance and feedback issues. During Act II, microphone cues were completely ignored, resulting in extraneous noises broadcast from backstage. Martin Kinnane’s lighting design was just as problematic as it lagged behind the actors’ movements. This is almost unforgivable as it is integral to the portrayal of time, space and memory.

When Next to Normal draws to a close, loose ends remain untied. In spite of this, Ramondo manages to assemble her cast for a final upbeat sing-along, to which the audience rises in triumphant ovation. It’s a bizarre, and seemingly obligatory, reaction to a substandard staging. Of course, the production does convey an important message, but just because the characters settle for next-to-normal, doesn’t mean the audience should settle for next-to-perfect.

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