“Next To Normal” is an excellent piece of musical theatre. A rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt. It’s about a mother who struggles with a bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness has on her family. It also addresses such issues as grieving, suicide, drug abuse, psychiatry and suburban life. It certainly is no Mary Poppins
The musical was a hit on Broadway a year or so ago and considering the subject matter a huge triumph for its creators. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010. I was fortunate to see the show on my trip to New York last July starring Alice Ripley in the lead role of Diana for which she won the best actress Tony award. She was brilliant,the production was smart, high tech and very moving. The only fault was that the music was very loud and sometimes the lyrics were hard to follow.
The Melbourne Theatre Company have launched a local version of the show and I must say I was underwhelmed.
I was at the first preview so I must try and be kind, but I am afraid this local misconcieved version disappointed. Why? Well I must first and foremost blame the set, therefore I must blame the director – Dean Bryant (a protege of Simon Phillips) who agreed to the set, second I must blame the leading male actor – the husband, as played by a miscast Matt Hetherington who is not up for such a demanding role, his musical comedy roots showing, not his acting chops.
It is hard not to compare it to the NY show as it is still very fresh in my mind. The 3 tiered setting of a house with large Lichenstein-like eyes of the mother watching over you was masterful in making you feel like you may be in the mind of the troubled heroine – well that was my interpretation of it anyway. The scaffolding set was full of lights and action, constantly on the move, shifting shape to accommodate all the various settings within the house and other locations, even though it was constantly in motion the set never distracted from the storytelling. This can’t be said of the MTC version. More realistic in style , you know you are in a middle class American home with its slatted projected leafy walls, and Victorian staircase. It still moves at a frenetic pace but you notice every movement and it is very distracting. Cut the sliding walls by half and maybe it may work.
It is admirable when a local production tries its own version but sometimes you wish they wouldn’t try and tamper with it too much – Simon Phillips certainly didn’t do it in the past!!!! Alas the sound problems of inaudible lyrics repeats like the NY show, perhaps it is the intention of the composers to bombard you, just like Diana and her demons inside her head.
Aside for the miscasting of Matt H the rest of the cast are all very good, especially Kate Kendall in the lead role of Diana, she has a good voice and once she settles into the role will nail the mixture of madness and pathos required, she was 3/4 of the way there on the first preview.
Perhaps the show will be best to see towards the end of its short run (if you can get tickets) then the kinks will be ironed out and perhaps Mr. Herrington might get a grasp of the material, as for now the show is almost Next To Normal.