BWW Reviews: Raw and Real, NEXT TO NORMAL Tackles The Issue of Mental Illness With Sensitivity And Honesty
Wednesday 14th January 2015, Hayes Theatre, Potts Point NSW
Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Pulitzer Prize winning musical NEXT TO NORMAL looks at the all too common, but not often enough discussed, issue of mental illness as it affects what appears to be a normal suburban family with respect and without judgment. Darylin Ramondo (Director & Producer) has taken this work and adapted it to the intimate space of Hayes Theatre with wonderful results.
The set is minimalist with black walls and floor and limited features. The cast are seen creating the space with white chalk as the audience enters. The set allows for different spaces to be defined by chalk outlines, limited mobile furniture, and raised floors. In comparison to larger stagings of NEXT TO NORMAL, like the three level set in the original New York production, this simple set functions better as it allows for creativity and expression through drawing, helping to express emotions and feelings in a different medium.
As the story starts, it seems like this is a typical family, mother, father, son and daughter. But as the story unfolds, it's clear that all is not "normal" as mother, Diana Goodman(Natalie O'Donnell) reels out of control preparing for the family to start their day (Just Another Day) and father Dan (Anthony Harkin) sees the signs and seeks professional help, that we later learn has been an ongoing challenge for Diana. Paralleled, and interwoven in the adults issue, is daughter Natalie's (Kiane O'Farrell) challenges, from being a smart high school student wanting to get into Yale, having her own demons to deal with (Everything Else) and exploring new love. Whilst the story is primarily Diana's battle with her issues and how it affects her family, Ramondo's treatment gives a bigger focus to Natalie and how her doubts and demons are playing out, often in parallel to her mother's.
O'Donnell gives an outstanding emotional performance as the loving mother and wife that wants to be well but remains haunted. She connects well in solos where she shares her story, engaging the audience as she sings to them in a manner that feels as if she is talking to each individually. Her frustration, love, anger and loss is palpable as the emotions take over her body and voice whilst still remaining clear. Harkin presents the long suffering, loyal, steadfast husband with the pleading desperation of a man wanting to regain the loving carefree wife he married, all the while repressing his own issues as he focuses on his family. His intensity in trying to plead with Diana can be imposing as he towers over O'Donnell with both anger at her refusal to let go of the past and her decision to forego medication, and love and caring as he only wants her to be well and for his family to be stable.
As Natalie, the overlooked perfect daughter, O'Farrell stands out. She captures the maturity of the high achieving student with the sullenness of a teenager well and balances between being exhausted with her mother's condition and wanting to help her all the while battling with the fear that the same "craziness" is going to affect her. Her interactions with Henry (Clay Roberts) capture the awkwardness and judgment of youth as she tries to deflect his interest at the start. She displays raw emotion as she realises that her parents haven't come to her recital, she faces her mother with her feelings of neglect and she tries to push Henry away to save him from herself. There is a tremble in her voice as she sings the intensely emotional Maybe/Next To Normal and appears on the brink of tears, which are already threatening to fall from some of the audience.
Roberts presents Henry as a gentle, energetic, caring counter for Natalie. Roberts presents him as a slightly dorky but romantic support that both gets Natalie to open up, but also provides someone for her to turn to when her parents are caught up in their own issues.
The two doctors, Dr Fine and Dr Madden are played by Alex Rathgeber who captures calm authoritativeness with quiet sex appeal. He has a gentle comforting voice that leads Diana to extend her delusions to both doctors as well.
The final character, the playful son that is everything a mother could dream of, Gabe is beautifully presented by Brent Trotter. Without wanting to give too much away, Trotter presents Gabe's yearning for recognition and his interaction with his mother with energy and passion. Lyrically, he presents some lovely high light notes with haunting clarity.
The music, predominantly rock styling, is presented well under Musical Director Alistair Smith. The band, hidden behind the set provides a good soundscape for the performance and the singers all deliver solid performances. The score keeps the pace flowing and the lyrics are detailed and clever. The performers show the depth of their skill and understanding of the work in presenting songs that naturally fit and the transitions between speech and vocals are seamless.
NEXT TO NORMAL explores mental illness and the impacts it has on the Goodman family in a way that does not shy away from the hard truths of it but still has a sensitivity and honesty. It doesn't gloss over the realities and make them "shiny" and palatable, instead, acknowledging that its not easy, it is messy, it can take time to deal with, and things may never be "normal", and many people can be affected. In setting it as an average family, it could be anyone. Whilst not everyone in the audience may directly relate, there is something that everyone can take from the story, even if it is the comfort that a universal "normal" doesn't really exist, its whatever is "normal" for you.
This production of NEXT TO NORMAL is a must see. It tackles important issues whilst being a moving and very entertaining piece that everyone can connect to on some level.
8 January - 1 February 2015
Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave Potts Point
Images: Yael Stemple