Next To Normal

Doorstep Arts, Geelong brings this Pulitzer-Prize winning musical to Sydney's Hayes Theatre with great results.
Next To Normal

Image: supplied

Musical theatre can be said to tempt the senses, teach its audience about life and tug hard at the heartstrings. In this way, Next to Normal is a true triple-threat. A Tony-award winning musical in three categories including Best Score, the musical was also awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Doorstep Arts from Geelong have succeeded in bringing this musical to Sydney’s Hayes Theatre with a comprehensive array of references to mental health symptoms and treatment options. A rewarding range of everyday family dynamics is also emphasised. This version upholds the original musical’s straightforward approach to mental illness. Its ambition toward stigma-busting for those dealing with diagnosis is not lost amongst its aftershocks.

The strong ensemble of six performers illustrates the family’s progression with clarity, honesty, humour and all the energy that this work demands. The actors quickly meet the challenge of creating a domestic atmosphere of constant instability, anxiety and renewal of stamina as they also do the illustration of delusion and doctor’s sessions.

Tom Kitt’s instantly likeable contemporary score is delivered with conversational ease by the six cast members. There is not a false note sung as the family makes sense of the emotional ebb and flow in song. Key musical numbers for ensemble groupings or soloists will repeat safely in your mind for days afterwards.

As the mother dealing with bipolar disorder and delusions following the loss of her baby, Natalie O’Donnell’s Diana is a believable, brave and bold creation. We see through this work by O’Donnell the sometimes analytical side of a mental health consumer forever walking a tightrope even as the rope itself disappears. She illustrates such a struggle with superbly nuanced spoken and sung vocal outbursts.

Very rewarding in this production is the other female family member, Natalie, as played by Kiane O’Farrell. The role demands her to be a constant foil for her mother, as well as reacting and surviving as a regular though damaged teenager. O’Farrell’s well-paced dialogue and expressive action give momentum to many scenes and provide expositional snippets in a rewarding kaleidoscope of colours throughout. Her vocal timbre is true and focused.

Natalie’s boyfriend Henry (Clay Roberts) is well portrayed and well sung. He interacts with convincing chemistry during his on stage relationship, providing beautiful light from outside for the struggling family. Alex Rathgeber provides a wealth of psychiatrist gems to clinically contrast with the humanness of the family throughout his well characterised and also finely sung performance.

Anthony Harkin’s Dan exudes vulnerability, fatigue and the desperation of a supporting relative. His depiction of over-enthusiastic grappling at the smorgasbord of treatment scenarios will be familiar to many. Harkin’s vocals are of the smooth modern style. He outlines lyrics with a harder edge where needed with enjoyable contrasts.

Dan’s son Gabe (Brent Trotter) consumes the stage, Martin Kinnane’s effective lighting, costuming variations and all music he sings with fantastic presence. His casting and direction through the ensemble action is the final successful piece to the production’s well cast group.

I have viewed Next to Normal in a much larger venue, where the result was less immediate, believable and musically balanced than it is currently at the Hayes Theatre. An illness-indicating innovation brought to the Hayes from performances in Melbourne is to use white chalk to manually outline objects and draw symbols on the floor set and props to show emotional signposts and accompany the thought process. If this creatively realised piece needed any more detail to emphasise its depths then this is the master, dare I say euphoric, stroke.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Next to Normal

Produced by Doorstep Arts, Geelong
Sydney’s Hayes Theatre

Director: Darylin Ramondo
Musical Director: Alistair Smith
Lighting Designer: Martin Kinnane
Cast: Natalie O'Donnell, Anthony Harkin, Alex Rathgeber, Brent Trotter, Kiane O'Farrell, Clay Roberts.

Until 1 February 2015

Paul Nolan

Friday 16 January, 2015

About the author

Paul Nolan is a classically trained pianist. He studied at UNSW and graduated with a Bachelor of Music.