NEXT TO NORMAL, THE MUSICAL
Produced by Zac Mansfield, Musical Direction by Diana Chappell, Stage Managed by Kit Bauldry, Choreographed and Directed by Joan Mansfield
By Paul Love
Mental illness is a topic that occasionally finds its way into musicals, sometimes in lighthearted, comedic takes like the Burt Bacharach 60s musical comedy Promises, Promises, or the more serious Lady in the Dark, created by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin in the early 1940s. Perhaps no show tackles mental illness quite as unflinchingly head-on as NEXT TO NORMAL, created in 2008 by Brian Yorkey (lyrics and original book) and Tom Kitt (music), and currently being staged by Oshawa’s Dancyn Productions. NEXT TO NORMAL explores the concept of what it means to be normal, whether being normal is a realistic goal, and the controversial ways modern medical practices help people to achieve the state of being “normal”, but with the sacrifice of their highest highs and lowest lows. The show certainly hit all the right notes with audiences—in its Broadway run in 2009, NEXT TO NORMAL was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 3.
At the beginning, we are introduced to Diana Goodman, a loving wife and mother who we find out suffers from bipolar disorder, which she has been battling for over 16 years. She struggles to repair this disorder, which has greatly affected her family’s well-being. As Diana, Laura LeBreton McMinn presents a character that is warm and likeable; she draws us in and we can’t help but root for her. Diana is the heart and soul of this show, and we feel this through all of the powerful emotion, pain, and exhaustion that Ms. McMinn imbues her character with every moment she is onstage.
Diana’s son, Gabe, is portrayed by Conner Clarkin as a typical curfew-challenged 17-year-old. Mr. Clarkin infuses his early scenes with a gleeful abandon, and then, during his mother’s most difficult moments, shows a fear and sadness that tugs at our heartstrings.
Nicole Cann plays Diana’s daughter, Natalie, who is at times greatly affected by her mother’s disorder and its various treatments, all the while dealing with the travails of being a teenager. Ms. Cann’s Natalie is an anxious, quiet, loner on the surface, but it is through her powerful singing voice that Ms. Cann shows us the fire and anguish Natalie keeps bottled up inside. Natalie and her mom are often at odds with each other, and the two actors play off of each other well in these moments. Natalie finds the comfort she needs in the company of Henry (Robert Herr), a classmate who struggles to make a romantic connection with Natalie amidst her family’s turmoil. Mr. Herr and Ms. Cann share a sweet, believable chemistry in their scenes together.
The person trying to steer the ship through the rough waters of this family’s struggles is Dan—Diana’s husband. Daron Owen ably handles this role, portraying Dan as a calming presence with the right body language and a steady singing voice.
Bob Bauldry tackles the dual roles of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine—the medical practitioners who attempt to alleviate the symptoms of Diana’s bipolar disorder through different medical practices, which sometimes seem to make matters worse.
Director Joan Mansfield’s set is appropriately cold, stark, and lacking in comfort, not only because this is a house where its occupants do little beyond the exhaustive battle of simply making it through each day, but also because it doubles as the spaces of Diana’s fractured, desolate mind. Zac Mansfield’s lighting design is most effective when it shifts—sometimes strongly—along with Diana’s mood changes.
Dancyn Productions’ NEXT TO NORMAL continues at The Dancyn Theatre, 681 Dnipro Boulevard, May 10th to 13th at 8 pm, with a 2 pm matinee on May 14th. Tickets are available at the door before each performance or visit their website for further information.