Monday, 22 October 2012

Next to Normal crazy good theatre


 By Bill Rankin

West Side Story has its fatal knife fight. Sweeney Todd gets song and dance routines out of serial murder, dismemberment and prankster cannibalism. The seminal 1927 Kern and Hammerstein II musical Show Boat offers a humfest inspired by the scourge of American racism. The Sound of Music is hardly all sweetness and light: the von Trapps barely survive the imminent Nazi Anschluss. Urinetown makes sewers into sanctuaries. Annie is an abused orphan; even Mary Poppins is lonely spinster without not quite enough magic to get herself a stable domestic arrangement of her own.
So when a new musical comes along that explores a particular form of insanity — bipolarity — no one should be surprised that it draws audiences ready to be bummed out and invaded by earworms at the same time.
The Citadel-Theatre-Calgary co-production of the Brian Yorkey/Tom Kitt 2009 Broadway rock-musical hit Next to Normal is as kinetic as a bipolar patient surging, and as depressing as any story about families in despair, children skidding out of control, hope not just fading but being bashed about mercilessly.
Director Ron Jenkins and the Citadel production team have staged an often hilarious, ultimately maddening musical gallop through the sabotaged life of Diana, a suburban mom desperate for even a little control over her world, thwarted repeatedly by a mental disorder that resists all remedies. Suicide beckons; love has no power to dissuade the morbid comforter.
Kathryn Akin plays Diane
Kathryn Akin is a totally convincing Diane, the disturbed and disturbing central character. In Saturday's first preview performance, Akin exuded the positive energy that the rock musical conventions call for, but when Diane hits the wall and the pall of doom pervades the scenes of bleak medical adventures like electric shock and dead-end talk and drug therapies, Akin was moving. She has the vocal heft and the actor’s experience to command the spotlight convincingly. The part gives her a lot to sing, and except for a few brief spells towards the end where she sounded a little strained, she delivered a strong performance.
 The close to a couple of dozen tunes Yorkey and Kitt have written to propel this unhappy story give each character plenty of challenging musical episodes, and musical director Don Horsburgh and his small cohort of musicians in the pit lifted the characters into the ambiguous world of musical theatre most helpfully.
The production has a nice mix of young, up-and-comers and seasoned pros. Akin has had an interesting career in Britain and Canada, and Réjean Cournoyer (Capt. von Trapp in the last Citadel Sound of Music) sang Dan, Diana’s hopeful, helpless husband, firmly and unaffectedly. He was best in the couple’s more subdued and tender moments; his voice sounded a little dry and tired in the heavy-duty belting tunes.
Sarah Farb crafted the role of Nathalie very intelligently. Nathalie is the daughter left out in the cold as her mother fights toxic brain chemistry and wallows in memories of a dead baby son. The girls seeks refuge first in an obsessive will to be perfect, then in drug-induced oblivion.
Robert Markus plays Gabe, the ghost child; Markus has a strong Broadway-style voice, and in scenes where he haunts the wretched mother, he generated feelings more Mephistophelean than wispy child soul adrift in a sick woman’s mind. The effect the character produces was creepier than anything we see in Diana’s manic-depressive rollercoaster ride.
Nathalie’s boyfriend Henry (Michael Cox), a pot-head with a good heart, doesn’t sing much, but he aced the part, and the scenes he and Farb have together bring the artificial aspects of musical theatre down to the level of just plain affecting theatre.
John Ullyatt is Doctor Madden, Diana’s last hope. Ullyatt is a versatile performer with a decent set of pipes, but his contribution is mainly straight theatrical in this show, and it’s an important contribution. In several scenes, he shifted from comedian to serious actor in a flash. Ullyatt stole the scene when Diana hallucinates her shrink as a raucous rock star one second, an understanding therapist the next.
Next to Normal is a high-energy night of contemporary musical theatre. You wonder how many folks leave a production of Les Miz brooding about the French Revolution. You’ll leave Next to Normal invigorated the way a night of live theatre should make you feel, and probably a little blue because this musical will touch everyone who isn't living a perfectly normal life.

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