Music by Tom Kitt. Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. An Arts Club production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, September 14. Continues until October 9
Vocally, you could hardly ask for a better cast. My beef is with the book.
In the musical family drama Next to Normal, Diana, the mom, struggles with worsening bipolar disorder. Librettist and lyricist Brian Yorkey sketches in the outlines of that hell pretty accurately. Diana tries medication and talk therapy, and she enjoys some improvement, but her setbacks are increasingly brutal. When her most persuasive option seems to be suicide, the most persuasive option in her psychiatrist’s view is electroconvulsive treatment.
But Yorkey’s storytelling is descriptive rather than experientially evocative. Diana sings about “the sensation that you’re screaming, but you never make a sound/Or the feeling that you’re falling, but you never hit the ground,” but Yorkey never delivers the kind of sustained dramatic scenes that would allow us to empathize with Diana as she experiences flat-out panic or deadening depression. Yorkey does show us Diana manically making sandwiches on the kitchen floor, but that’s just kind of cute. Some will no doubt argue that you can’t expect more from musical theatre, but musical theatre is no stranger to deep emotion, and opera, which is the musical’s cousin, embraces heavy complexities, including madness, as a matter of course. Remember Lucia di Lammermoor?
Too much of Next to Normal is painted in broad strokes: there’s a generic venture into drug abuse, for instance. And the show veers dangerously close to movie-of-the-week simple-mindedness by very nearly asserting that if Diana could just get over a traumatic incident in her past, she’d be okay.
Fortunately for the audience, the cast of this Arts Club production is committed to the material, and they’ve all got the chops to make that commitment count. Caitriona Murphy plays Diana, and her pitch is perfect as she negotiates Tom Kitt’s intricate rock score. Her delivery of the tricky, descending intervals in the folk-flavoured “I Miss the Mountains” is especially pleasing. Warren Kimmel, who plays Diana’s long-suffering husband, Dan, has a big, gloriously open voice that’s one of the best in the business. Matt Palmer is admirably contained and vocally impressive as a pharmacologist and a psychiatrist. And a trio of emerging performers matches these old hands note for note. Eric Morin brings an electrifying presence to the stage as Gabe, the son; Jennie Neumann plays the daughter, Natalie, and nails the character’s music as well has her anger; and, playing Natalie’s love interest, Henry, Colin Sheen lays down a skilled vocal performance as well as an ingratiatingly subtle portrait of his character.
They’re fantastic. To make Next to Normal really work, though, the cast would have had to invent a detailed world that the musical itself doesn’t provide. And that’s too much to ask.