Next to Normal

Oscar Theatre Company at The Cremorne Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“Intense and very intimate, we do our dance”

Diana is bipolar depressive with delusional episodes which makes family life a bit of a struggle.

Next to Normal lost out on the Tony Award for best musical to Billy Elliot of all shows. Yet it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama which is only acquired by a piece of musical theatre every decade. So was this the well though-out drama the Pulitzer suggests or a show even less mediocre than Billy Elliot?

It’s the first one.

Mental illness is not an easy topic to sell because no one wants to really discuss it; Next to Normal is stunningly original in its attempt to convey the difficulties faced by those affected. South Park, Family Guy or The Simpsons often take a serious film/play or even real life situation and demonstrate how hilarious it would be in musical form (Stop the Planet of the Apes, I want to get off, Oh, Streetcar!, Terri Schiavo: The Musical or Helen keller! The Musical). A musical about mental illness seems like it would fit that criteria and maybe it would if they’d done it in a classic Lloyd Webber style. But musical theatre has a variety of ranges to handle any issue with dignity and good technique, as perfectly demonstrated by Next to Normal. Music is beautifully expressive and is able to communicate the fluctuating moods and sentiments of a mentally ill character better than other mediums. Listen to the song ‘My physcopharmacologist and I.’ The short scenes with Diana and her doctor tell you that she is not happy with the treatment but it’s the music that really expresses how overwhelming taking this medicine is to her.

Of course Diana’s husband and daughter express their feelings of frustration in wonderful songs such as ‘Everything Else’ but these are done in conventional musical theatre style. The exceptional songs are those that involve Diana and/or Gabriel. Gabriel is Diana’s son who died as a baby, which triggered her mental illness. He appears in the show as a teenager, the age he would be if he lived, not just as a delusion of Diana’s but as a manifestation of her mental illness. In the song ‘Superboy and the Invisible Girl,’ Natalie vents her anger at that lack of attention she receives from her mother and imagines Gabriel as this “Superboy.”Natalie’s imaged Gabriel stands behind her and joins in the chorus to further taunt her.

Finding someone to play the role of Gabriel must be a challenge, what with him playing the ideal son/ jealousy inducing brother and generally representing mental illness itself. Hearing that the director picked someone from a band with no previous acting experience was mildly surprising. I was even more surprised when he turned out to be excellent. You couldn’t fault any of the cast for their acting or singing. Though original Diana Alice Ripley is a fan favourite, this actress doesn’t lend too heavily on her interpretation, bringing out more the humorous elements of the character.

If I had to pick a fault with the book, it would be with the character Henry. A teen who takes an interest in Natalie, by all accounts introduces her to smoking pot and getting high. She then abandons her ambition of leaving for Yale early and starts popping her mother’s pills at which point Henry says she’s taken it “too far.” Yet he still continues to pursue this drug-riddled girl as she pushes him away. If you do suspend your disbelief and go along with a teenage boy being that dedicated to a girl, you then get to see him act as a counterpart to Diana’s long-suffering husband David in the song ‘Why stay.’ We’ve seen how miserable David is, do you think we want to see Henry end up like that? Sure the guy’s a bit annoying but he also gives the show a few more humorous lines.

I have talked about how articulately the show increases awareness about mental illness but there is humour in there, I promise. After flushing away the medication that her husband thought made her happy, Diana explains that “we now have the happiest septic tank in the neighbourhood”. Maybe not a big laugh but little lines like that stop the show from becoming too bogged down. Still the show doesn’t attach an artificial happy ending like a movie (*cough* Silver Linings Playbook *cough*). Not that the ending isn’t heart-warming but there is no magical cure and love is not the answer.

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