By Paul Love
“Next to Normal” tackles the important — and often misunderstood — topic of mental illness in an unflinching manner. The brainchild of Brian Yorkey (lyrics and original book) and Tom Kitt (music), it found great success in its original run on Broadway, and is now being staged at Whitby Courthouse Theatre.
Diana Goodman (Catherine Marzola) is a caring wife to Dan (Brian Hargan) and mother to Natalie (Sophia Daunt) and Gabe (Devin Dos Santos). We discover that Diana has been battling bipolar disorder for more than 16 years, and this has greatly tested the strength of the Goodman family. The approach of modern Western medicine to treat mental illness —throwing medication at the problem — is clearly on trial here, as the medical treatments Diana receives to make herself more “normal” only seem to make matters worse.
Catherine Marzola portrays Diana as a woman who genuinely cares about her family, but who has moments where they feel like strangers to her. Ms. Marzola makes us feel Diana’s confusion, detachment, and fear very succinctly in a performance that is both powerful and subtle. Her quiet, inwardness contrasts nicely against her bombastic song moments, where her great singing voice lights up the stage.
Brian Hargan presents a Dan who is struggling to hold his family’s world together, particularly when Diana is absent (physically as well as emotionally). He is likeable and funny, adeptly mining laughs from the audience, but then just as quickly tugging at your heartstrings with a moment of deep melancholy. Add a powerhouse singing voice to the solid characterization, and you’ve got one masterful performance.
Taking on the role of Gabe with abandon and a tireless energy — and an excellent singing voice to match it — is Devin Dos Santos, who presents Gabe as a typical teenager — staying up late and ignoring his parents — but also atypical in the way he spends much of his time away from his friends, doting on his mother, almost sensing when she’s struggling, and doing everything he can to pick her up. It is in the moments where he fears losing a connection with his mother that Mr. Dos Santos wonderfully contrasts his gleeful high spirits with a devastating fear and sadness.
As the younger sister living in her brother’s shadow, Sophia Daunt imbues Natalie with a tough, evasive exterior protecting the sad, lonely, young woman inside who just wants to connect and be appreciated. Her struggle to maintain a semblance of a life amid the turmoil of her mother’s illness is such a believable portrayal that it makes Ms. Daunt’s Natalie instantly relatable. Her incredible singing rings with such passion and energy that you are riveted whenever she has the stage. The chemistry she shares with Nathan Simpson, as Natalie’s love interest, Henry, makes for some great moments between these two characters as they desperately try to create a little umbrella of happiness amid Natalie’s stormy family life. Mr. Simpson also displays some great comedic instincts in his brief scenes.
Yorkey and Kitt didn’t give the performer playing the dual roles of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine a lot to do in this show, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jay Da Costa’s standout “rock ‘n roll moments” as Dr. Fine.
Almost acting as the seventh member of the cast is Erastus Burley’s stunning set. It is not often that you see a set that encapsulates and combines a play’s setting and main thematic elements so perfectly. The majority of the two-level space is representative of the Goodman household, but is presented in an altered fashion: a kitchen framed at one side by a monotonous, greyed-out pyramid of cans that stack off into the distance; a tangled mess of empty picture frames (possibly representing Diana’s lost memories), starting at a small table by the door, climb the wall and grow out of control up to and along the ceiling; more anonymous, greyed out appliances and containers are stacked wall-like along one side of the upper level; and a huge, dishevelled wall of clothing stage centre of the upper level, the centre of which acts as an entrance. It’s as though we’re seeing the clutter and the chaos of everyday life through the lens of Diana’s mind.
I have always thought that a musical theatre production that is performed with a live band instantly places itself in a higher class. Kudos to the talented band that gave so much energy and soul to this production.
Director Shael Risman keeps the action flowing nicely from scene to scene, never allowing any moments to feel bogged down, and using the marvelous set to his full advantage. Mr. Risman makes a beautiful choice with the final number by having a video screen display a montage of people (alive and deceased) who have struggled with mental illness, such as Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Margot Kidder, and Marilyn Monroe. The most indelible of these images is the final one, of Mr. Risman’s brother, Carey, who lost his own battle with mental illness 22 years ago.
Whitby Courthouse Theatre’s production of “Next to Normal” is not to be missed, and if you want to see it you should act quickly because tickets are selling out very fast. Remaining performances are November 15th, 16th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th at 8 pm, with a 2 pm matinee on Saturday, November 17th. Your best bet for getting tickets would be to visit the website.