‘Next to Normal’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by November 12, 2015

‘Next to Normal’ is a 2008 rock musical, gaining Tony Awards for Best Score and Orchestration. Brian Yorkey wrote the book and it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rare honour for a musical. The Pulitzer Committee described the show as ‘a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals’. Yorkey went on to write the contemporary lyrics to Tom Kitt’s spirited music, with the show running for 700 performances on Broadway.
This exciting and very moving production is being presented by the Black Swan State Theatre Company at the Heath Ledger Theatre within the State Theatre Centre at 174 William Street, Perth. The two and a half hour performances commence at 7.30 each evening until 22nd November, there are matinees.

The set depicts a rudimentary family dining room, with a large wall of kitchen units in a modern-day, American home (voice coach Julia Moody thankfully developed just a hint of accent). On the other side of the wall is a bedroom with en suite facilities. These props are on a central revolve, which no doubt created a great deal of extra work for the stage manager Hugo Lopez and his assistant Christabel Fry.
There is an outer, concentric revolve that moves in the opposite direction. On the stage apron at one side is a comfortable chair and reading lamp, on the other a bed in a hospital ward.
A massive pair of net / scrim curtains hides the whole of the rear wall of the stage. Set and costume designer, Bruce McKinven was helped with his costume construction by Jenny Edwards and Molly Werner. The Artistic Interns are the talented, still to be discovered, Ellin Sears and Sarah Courtis. Bruce has decided on a simple, uncluttered set that would not detract from the storyline. He has framed the whole stage with Tudor-like, oak beams.

          Diana Goodman (Rachael Beck) is a strong minded but ‘bipolar’ woman, determined to find ways around her mental troubles that started a decade earlier after a tragedy. When her loving, but slightly overbearing, husband Dan (Brendan Hanson) comes home, Diana relieves her anxieties with sex.
          Because of her psychological problems, Diana’s caring GP, Dr Fine (Michael Cormick) sends her to a mercenary and unethical psychiatrist, Dr Madden (Michael Cormick), in whose rooms she again finds relief by sexual fantasizing. Madden prescribes dozens of contraindicated tablets in a rainbow of colours.
          Teenage daughter, Natalie Goodman (Shannen Alyce) is experimenting with drugs, whilst managing to resist the advances of adoring classmate, Henry (Joel Horwood). Natalie’s older brother, Gabe (James Bell) is still at home, and although the father thinks it is time he left, his Mum is still keen to have Gabe around.
          Can Diana’s problems be solved? Will the family ever find relief from the hassles and stress of modern day suburban life?

The term ‘Rock Musical’ suggests ear-splitting, cacophonous music; however, this score is catchy and perfectly paced. The lyrics are fascinating short stories, giving a true insight to the family structure. The dialogue is crammed with humour, as well as explaining the tragic circumstances.
Under the guidance of the internationally admired Musical Director, David Young (also on keyboard), who has come straight from a huge tour with ‘Wicked’, are the musicians Michael Perkins (drums and percussion), Shane Pooley (bass), Andrew Weir (guitar), Brian Kruger (violin) and Laura McGorgan (cello) impeccably balanced, allowing the lyrics to be heard perfectly.
In a musical, the audience expect to have catchy tunes, meaningful lyrics, powerful delivery, clear enunciation and colourful action; sadly, we are often lucky to get only a couple of these aims in any show. Here we have a MAGNIFICENT cast of six, all outstanding singers and actors giving us all of the qualities.
Rachel Beck was amazing with her crystal clear voice, superb stage presence and movement. How often does one hear the songs being presented mechanically? In this production, every syllable was filled with emotion and really meant something. Many of the audience were close to tears. Ben Collin’s sound balance was perfect; the cast did not have to battle to be heard.
Choreographer Claudia Alessi has the actors gliding, almost dreamlike, through some of the scenes. Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest has employed a whole range of lighting techniques, from glaring pure white spots depicting tension, to the warm glow of a family gathering. The special lighting at the end of each Act was something special, the first act had a radiant, pink cloud effect that seemed to stretch to infinity; the second Act had a dazzling, warm glow that filled the whole theatre.
The story may sound depressing and even uninteresting, but in the hands of WA’s amazing director, Adam Mitchell – assisted by a new talent, Warwick Doddrell – they have given us one of the Heath Ledger Theatre’s most challenging, but best, productions. It is no surprise that show has won so many prestigious awards over the years.
brenda