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Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Monument National

Local punk cranky rock musicals don't rock hard enough.

Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Monument National

NEXT TO NORMAL has been mounted by Contact Theatre at the Monument Nationale. Written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and directed by Deborah Friedman, it will run through May 14th.

Diana and Dan are trying to make it work. They've survived an unplanned pregnancy, the dawn of parenthood when they were hardly more than children themselves, and the onset of Diana's bipolar disorder, but they're struggling to hold the pieces together as Diana's condition flares up again. In music and searching theatricality, they explore the constant question gnawing at anyone who's ever experienced mental illness - is it better to genuinely feel agony, or manufacture a more comfortable reality?

Mental illness doesn't manifest overtly in many musicals, despite the fact that many artists are, to use the technical term, coo-coo banana-pants insane. Rock musicals are few and far between, and truly successful ones are even more rare. NEXT TO NORMAL, as a show, is a truly successful show: it made waves upon its initial opening in 2009, survived the cutthroat competition of Broadway, and has been impressing critics - some more begrudgingly than others - ever since. I like musicals, in theory. I genuinely don't like very many of them in practice. This is because I am fundamentally an irony-pilled punk, as much as I am also fundamentally a step-ball-change theatre kid. I know that the true and beautiful melding of rock and musical theatre is possible, because I have seen it - some (though not most) productions of RENT, for example, which understand the show for what it is, which is a nasty little nugget of a performance, about naughty people living in the linty bellybutton of society. People like me! Or Carl Anderson's performance of Heaven On Their Minds in the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar - a show I generally dislike, because it's schlocky and the I find the music to be overall kind of bad, but which features Anderson's punk-as-hell, scream-your-face-off performance which is so good, so genuinely rock and roll, that it's not only compelling but shifted my entire perception of Christian history and theology.

When I'm hard on musicals, it's out of love. I know that musicals can be good. Often, they are - Chicago, Cabaret, The Producers, the Book of Mormon. More often than not, though, they are a pile of saccharine sentimental crap - The Phantom of the Opera. Mamma Mia. Sorry theatre kids, but Les Misérables. I have written theatre reviews so inconsistently these past few years, for global-plague reasons, that the invites I used to get in scads are now very infrequent, and working full-time for myself has greatly reduced my time to write things for free - so this is me writing somewhat off-beat. I am a tough musical critic. I go in with my defences up.

NEXT TO NORMAL is a show that breaks defences down. Mental illness is something that is as commonplace as it is terrifying: an everyday melodrama, an all-too-familiar horror movie playing out in living rooms and at kitchen tables all across the planet. Diana's mental illness isn't one of the socially acceptable ones: she isn't experiencing generalized anxiety, or unipolar depression. She is out of control, and intermittently psychotic. She sees things that are not there, clings to her delusions. Much of her misery is reasonable: it has an internal logic which can anticipate objections. The people who love her try to reason with it - try to reason with her - and we see the way mental illness has made her turn inward, lost her goodwill with the people who love her who now regard her with a not-unearned degree of resentment. We can understand why they would want her to kill the parts of herself that make her so compelled by her own feeling she's blind to the feelings of the people who love her - and depend on her. We feel her resentment of that, her will towards freedom. We see where it takes her.

Diana and Dan's overachieving teenage daughter is described as "a genius" but a "freak," so I am surprised when Hannah Lezare takes the stage, and is so normal-looking and beautiful I'm almost disappointed. I was expecting a Janis-Ian-from-Mean-Girls type. Her performance is a standout: she sings fabulously, emotes the rage and hopefulness and bittersweetness of teenage girlhood with believable and compelling range, and it's her chemistry with both her mother and her love interest, Henry (Jake Cohen) that make up the beating heart of the production. Literally my only wish is that she was more ugly, which is not a real critique.Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Monument National

Henry is played to perfection by Jake Cohen - whose physicality in the role I can best describe as some kind of Bob's Burgers heartthrob come to life. His Henry is dumb, brilliant, dorky, and genuinely sexy - a pot-smoking jazz enthusiast who takes a confident-but-bumbling shining to Hannah, and then feels compelled to try to help her out of the rigid shell she's built in response to to the behaviour of her erratic mother. Daniel Wilkenfeld anchors the production as Diana's various doctors - playing, as doctors often do in our real lives, a villain and a sage and a saviour and a buffoon as needed. He consistently surprised, excited, and horrified me.

Nikki Mabais Melchor's sparse stage production is surprisingly dynamic - a rolling section of stage does a lot of work to make the small space seem huge and complex, and to regularly push the production out of the everyday, into the fantastical world musicals all inhabit, and then back into the everyday all over again.

The music is also impressive - a six-piece band makes up massive soundscapes which range from twinkling classical piano to distorted rock guitar. It's those hard-rock areas that the cracks start to show, for me - in the way cracks tend to, for me, in musicals which feature rock music. Musical theatre is, largely, the buttoned-up pastime of middle-class suburban kids. Rock and roll is nasty music for nasty people - I use nasty with good connotations, here. Rock is cool, urban, dirty. It's aggrieved. It's crazy. It's subaltern. It suffers. It does not merely speak of pain - it understands it, on an embodied and spiritual level. Rock musicals which are not equal parts musical theatre and rock and roll have the same effect as those productions of RENT I spoke ill of earlier - to tell a story of HIV-positive anarcho-terrorists and sex workers and strung out performance artists, who cannot and will not pay their rent, it is not sufficient to cut a hole in some fishnet tights and spend three hours reading about the AIDS crisis on Wikipedia or whatever. The effect is similar to, I don't know, someone's middle-aged white uncle attempting to rap on TikTok, or something. In Next To Normal, to convey the descent of a good-times, already-nearly-crazy party girl into the depths of psychotic bipolar depression, triggered by domesticity she isn't built for and the one of the worst tragedies a person can survive, it isn't enough to sing and dance and act very well. You need to get to that Carl Anderson in Heaven On Their Minds place - screaming holy, as much a rock star as a triple threat, feeling on the forefront, the notes an afterthought. Anything less is obvious. You can hear it as soon as that distorted guitar kicks in.

NEXT TO NORMAL runs at Monument Nationale through May 14th. Tickets are available here. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental illness, you're not alone, and Contact Theatre has assembled resources here.



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