Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Next to Normal

My review of the Arts Club's Next to Normal, on now.

Warren Kimmel and Caitriona Murphy battle their demons in Arts Club's production of Next to Normal.
Warren Kimmel and Caitriona Murphy battle their demons in Arts Club's production of Next to Normal.
Credit: Supplied

STAGE REVIEW: Next to Normal

In 2009, New York theatre-goers found themselves slapped in the face with something rarely glimpsed on Broadway’s staid, old stages: mental illness, pharmaceuticals and an abundance of F-bombs. Next to Normal proved anything but with a catchy, pop-inspired score, dark humour and a careful balance on the razor-thin line between melo- and drama. That it went on to win two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize only solidifies what audiences had already learned: Like, Rent, Next to Normal stands to become a defining musical for a generation.

Creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey recognize that a picture-perfect family is an intangible, Rockwell-ian dream for most people. Next to Normal’s characters feel that pain — and then some. Diana (Caitriona Murphy) is bipolar and unhinged by grief, while husband Dan (Warren Kimmel) struggles to live happily-ever-in-denial. Meanwhile, their overachiever daughter Natalie (Jennie Neumann) fears she’s turning into her mother.

Done right, Next to Normal is powerful and riveting, digging deep inside you right from the opening number and wreaking havoc on your heart and mind well beyond the final curtain. This Arts Club production applies a glossy Desperate Housewives-like veneer over what should be a more nuanced production, like, say A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Where there should be tension, ferocity and bleak humour, here there’s a mostly flat anger. This is particularly true of the relationship between Diana and Natalie where the bittersweet parallels between mother and daughter never transcend the songs.

This isn’t to fault Murphy or Neumann’s portrayals (both acquit themselves well), but, oddly, the female characters are relegated to supporting status here rather than the leads. Through either Bill Millerd’s direction or Kimmel’s commanding performance (or a combination of both), Dan becomes the focal point. His emotional reckoning is Normal’s sole cathartic climax rather than another aspect of the devastating collateral damage wrought by spiraling mental illness and long-buried grief.

This production’s massive shift in focus reveals new layers to a husband’s stubborn, possibly selfish, devotion, but it does so at the expense of the story’s larger themes: what is mental illness; the efficacy of psychiatry; and survival. But, thanks to strong source material and Kimmel’s award-worthy turn, this trade-off only dilutes Normal’s powerful message rather than diminish it entirely.

Next to Normal runs to Oct. 9 at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, 8pm (Wed-Sat), 7:30pm (Tues). Matinees: Wed, Sat-Sun, 2pm. $29-$65 from 604-687-1644 ArtsClub.com.

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