09 May 2011

Review: Next to Normal

Next to Normal
Melbourne Thearte Company
3 May 2011
Playhouse, the Arts Centre
to 28 May

It's been a while since a show left me in tears. With only one tissue, I wasn't prepared for the MTC's production of the Broadway hit Next to Normal.

Next to Normal is about Diana's trauma-induced depression, anxiety and delusion. It opens with her singing about death and being jealous of people in obituaries. Her family have suffered for years and are reaching the point where love isn't enough to cope, and she's meeting with a new doctor.

It took Tom Kitt (Music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) nearly a decade to create this exquisite work. There was extensive research and they workshopped, performed and rewrote it many times. When  the 2008 off-broadway production still wasn't completely grabbing their audiences, they re-wrote again, this time killing songs that had created the show.

It takes time and support and feedback, and more time and support to create work this good. If we had that kind of support in Australia and we didn't give up on shows after one run, we'd be producing work this good. The 2009 Broadway production of Next to Normal won Tony Awards (including Best Score) and the 2010 Pultitzer Prize for Drama.

A musical won the Pulitzer Prize! There was controversy, but anyone who has seen any production knows why it won.

Shakespeare brought us into the minds of his characters with the soliloquy. Great musical theatre writers (like Sondheim, and Boubill and Schönberg) use song. Kitt and Yorkey never let us passively (and comfortably) watch, but make us see and feel what it's like to be in the breaking hearts and souls of their characters, who are just like us. It's almost impossible to distance ourselves from this story.

Next to Normal is a remarkable piece, but with such sensitive material, which is so close to too many of us, and such a dark sense of humour ("Valium is my favourite colour"), it could be a disaster in the wrong hands. Fortunately it was given to Dean Bryant (director) and Matthew Frank (musical director). These two met studying Musical Theatre at WAPPA and have gone on to create works incuding ProdigalOnce We Lived Here and Virgins: A Musical Threesome. I didn't see any of them, but will not miss anything these two have a hand in creating again. They get musicals. They get this style of storytelling that soars when it uses emotion and the subconscious reactions that music evokes.

And their cast are perfect.  Melbourne-favourites Matt Hetherington and Bert LaBonte never disappoint.  As the teen characters,  Gareth Keegan, Christy Sullivan and Benjamin Hoetjes are three recent WAPPA graduates who testify that there really is no other place to study Musical Theatre in Australia. But the surprise is Kate Kendall as Diana. Better known for TV and non-musical stage work, she brings an emotional truth and understanding to her performance that you can almost forget that she's singing.

Next to Normal isn't a show to miss, especially if you're one of those people who doesn't "like" musicals. This one will show you how good they can and should be. It's a heartbreaking story about hurts that "never heal" and, for all it's hope and love, leaves you understanding why some people can't get out of bed each morning.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Photo by Jeff Busby