Last night I went to see Next to Normal at the Four Seasons Centre, brought to Toronto by Dancap. I feel lucky to have experienced this show as did my date, Wayne (managing editor for Mooney on Theatre). If this is all you read of this article then let me get this out of the way now – do what you have to do to see this production.
Reason #1: You’ll get to see the same performance that won lead Alice Ripley a Tony two years ago. Reason #2: This show is truly special. Reason #3: There is none of that “making fun of musicals” shtick here that has invaded nearly everything to hit Broadway and beyond in the last decade. A welcome change for this writer. Dear audience, welcome to the return of the earnest musical.
Next to Normal had an interesting run on Broadway. It opened to critical acclaim, which can normally equate to a long juicy run. Not so here. After 2 years and a few Tonys, it closed. I can only suspect this is due to what sadly has become hard sells for Broadway; original music, no “based on the movie”-ness, and less than family-friendly dialogue. What a shame, because it must be one of the better musicals to come from Broadway in the last decade.
It is a show that opens as a normal day in the life of a functional dysfunctional family. Could be yours, could be mine, could be the neighbour’s. But something isn’t quite right. I’m hesitant to delve too deeply into the plot because I truly want this journey to be every patron’s unique experience.
I will say that mental illness is a large part of the subject matter and it is a heartbreakingly beautiful story. We live in a world where we all know someone on antidepressants – truly – and this makes for a show that is both unique and special in handling this subject matter. Wayne called it our society’s “bipolar and pharmaceutical fatigue”. We all know someone on something because they are dealing with something – that’s life today.
You will likely find that you identify with at least one, if not all of the six, characters. It is sort of the American Beauty of musicals. Each performance is incredible – my heart broke for Asa Somer’s character of Dan (Somers also appeared in the original show), I adored Jeremy Kushnier’s doctor characters and, I have to say, Emma Hunton’s Natalie is awesome!
Of course, Alice Ripley is a standout as the lead of Diana and Curt Hanson’s Gabe and Preston Sadlier’s Henry make for very relatable boys. They could be your brother’s friends. This isn’t a musical with dancing, but the singing and the acting within it is fantastic.
I will also say that it is a story about grief. How we live in a world that brushes over grief with medication and therapy and how we rush through our lives without stopping to honour the sadness that can move into a family and simply live there among the piano recitals and photo albums.
This is a story about how we do our best with movement and medication to move away from what hurts us. It might mean a life with less hurt, but also less meaning. Having dealt with so much grief of my own in the past year, this is something that stays with me from the show and that will stay with me for a good long time to come.
Maybe – as the show offers – the grief is not in the mind to be treated, but rather in the soul, existing in its own untouchable space.
This is the type of musical that used to be called an operetta. There is spoken word here and there but most of the plot moves forward with song. I don’t think we call them operettas anymore though – more of rock musicals perhaps – and the term applies as well.
Comparisons to Rent are unavoidable, the music feels very similar and the staging is extraordinarily similar. Wayne explains to me that both shows share a director, Michael Greif, which explains the overall tone and staging to some degree. The music is phenomenal and rather than being used as exposition, there is a rawness that comes through the music that drew me in.
I have to say, when the intermission came, I didn’t want it to. That is how drawn I was to the simple story of this family. This is also a welcome change for me. I nearly left a major Broadway musical at intermission when I saw it in NYC three years ago – the acting was that bad. With so much emphasis on voice and dancing in musicals these recent years, acting seems to be an afterthought. The acting in this show is fantastic, there is no other way to say it.
I did find, with those fifteen minutes away from the show after intermission, that the Rent comparisons seemed bigger for me in the second half. There is a lot of emotional rock balladeering while actors swing themselves emotionally around big silver poles and run up metal stairs.
I loved how it was a cast of six people and a band of the same number. I thought it was phenomenal that they managed to fill the vastness of the Four Seasons Centre. Wayne mentioned that he would have preferred to see the show in a more intimate space and certainly I think it would have made the night even more powerful had this been the case.
However, please know that both Wayne and I were blown away. And we both see a ton of theatre! Wayne said afterward, “It is a rare show that lends credibility to the musical as an art form.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
If you like musicals – go see Next to Normal. If you don’t like musicals – go see Next to Normal. If you like superb acting – go see Next to Normal. It pulls you in, it keeps you there, and it makes you think about your own life. In other words, it does what theatre should do.
Theatrical effects: Herbal tobacco, strobe lights, coarse adult language
Tickets can be purchased by phoning 416-644-3665, or they can be purchased online