A gripping, new, Canadian production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is now on stage in Toronto
Next To Normal is a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a suburban family’s struggle with a mother’s mental illness, as well as a critical examination of psychiatry and psychopharmacology. It’s an intelligent, hard-hitting drama that also happens to be a rock musical featuring a big, bold contemporary rock score with music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Mirvish is currently presenting a new production of the show by The Musical Stage Company in Toronto at the CAA Theatre.
Next To Normal opened on Broadway in 2009 and when I first saw it, I was floored that a musical could so intelligently examine the subject of mental illness and its effect on people’s lives. It’s a smart, well-written show that’s also dramatically compelling and full of big, heady emotions. It’s easily one of my favourite musicals of the past decade.
I was excited when The Musical Stage Company announced it was producing a new Canadian production of Next To Normal, and even more excited to hear they cast Ma-Anne Dionisio (best known for starring in the original Canadian production of Miss Saigon) in the incredibly difficult lead role of Diana Goodman; a suburban housewife suffering from bi-polar disorder and delusional episodes.
Though the role isn’t explicitly written for an Asian actor, I was glad to finally see one take it on because it’s 2019 and #RepresentationMatters. I assumed it was colour-blind casting but when they subsequently cast actors of Asian heritage as the kids (Natalie and Gabe) too, I was thrilled. By featuring a largely Asian cast, this production implicitly becomes a colour-conscious examination of how mental illness takes a disproportionate toll on Asian-American families.
Stigma associated with mental illness is deeply engrained in Asian cultures. Asian-Americans are three times less likely than whites to seek out and use mental health services. The lack of diversity among mental health professionals also leads to a dearth of culturally competent care, creating further barriers for Asian-Americans trying to access mental health services.
In this context, the choice to represent a mixed-race/Asian-American family grappling with mental health issues makes this already significant show even more groundbreaking.
Ma-Anne Dionisio’s performance is simply breathtaking for its emotional intensity. She effortlessly delivers the big, belty rock vocals to the point where she almost sounds a little too polished at times. She also has a tendency to underplay some of the lighter, funnier moments in the script that are designed to endear the character of Diana to us but when she plumbs the depths of her emotions, it’s raw and resonant and grabs you by the heart.
Troy Adams is heartbreaking as Diana’s husband and long-suffering caretaker, Dan. Watching his hands subtly shake during the song “I’ve Been” as he weighs a difficult decision on an invasive treatment for Diana you feel the burden he is bearing and his utter sense of exasperation.
The actors playing their children turn in equally compelling performances. Brandon Antonio exudes a sense of darkness and mystery as their son Gabe; he’s seductive and feels slightly dangerous which is exactly what the character calls for. Stephanie Sy turns in a remarkably nuanced portrayal of the neglected daughter Natalie.
Louise Pitre is delightful in the dual role of Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine; a role usually played by a male actor. The doctors were originally meant to represent the patriarchal aspects of the medical profession but in the context of this colour-conscious production it makes sense to swap the gender of the doctors to instead emphasize how a predominantly white/colonialist medical system alienates patients of colour.
I do wish the musical staging were more dynamic; particularly with the character of Gabe who factors into his mother’s illness in a way that I thought could’ve been more interestingly illustrated through the movement design. The minimalist set also sometimes leaves actors too out in the open, looking a bit unnatural.
The first three preview performances of the run were cancelled due to illness and last night’s premiere was only the second public performance so there were definitely some rough edges. The audio mix sounded off; the band drowned out the vocals at times, the mix for the dialogue was muddled making some lines hard to understand and actors’ mics consistently switched on late. The lighting design was also not always perfectly adjusted to light actors’ faces. These are issues that ought to be resolved for later performances.
Regardless, this Next To Normal is a stunning achievement and a must-see. Aside from the powerhouse performances, it’s a master class in using progressive casting—changing the ethnicity or gender of certain characters—to change the perspective of a show so it takes on a whole new significance and relevance.
- Next To Normal is playing at the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge Street) through May 19, 2019
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Added Wednesday matinees on May 8 & 15 at 1:30 p.m.
- Tickets $60 to $110, Students & Artsworkers $25 with valid ID
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the CAA Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photo of Ma-Anne Dionisio and Brandon Antonio by Dahlia Katz.