Independent music theatre will never have the budget, promotion and bling of commercial productions, but indie companies continue to prove that money and trying to please the biggest audience possible are not what make a show sing.
The 2009 Broadway production of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s rock musical Next to Normal won 3 of the 11 Tony Awards it was nominated for and won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The James Terry Collective’s production of Next to Normal captures everything that make it such an unforgettable work, while never being a copy of the original show.
Next to Normal is an astute and complex exploration of grief, mental illness and contemporary psychiatric treatment, but its success is far more than its themes and issues. As the Goodman family are forced to make impossible choices, judgement is abandoned as the best and worst of everyone is revealed in an overwhelming story about the price of love.
I remember crying into my clothes when I saw the Australian premier production (MTC) in 2011. Without falling into melodrama or schmaltz, the narrative reveals unexpected layers of grief and pain – and hope. Trauma and despair cannot exist without love and hope.
It’s a good show to begin with, but this cast are outstanding. With the guidance of director Mark Taylor, each bring parts of themselves and original perspectives to the characters.
Matt Hetherington was so powerful as the floundering father in the 2011 production. His return as Dan comes with an even more grounded understanding of a man who represses his own grief to support his family.
Melanie Bird is a discovery as Natalie, who’s had to know far too much in her 16 years. She’s supported perfectly by Hanlon Innocent as Henry, whose accepts disfunction as normal. Sam Richardson (Gabe) and Ross Chisari (the doctors) each find a balance of being seen though delusion but not losing their actual selves.
And Queenie van de Zant is a revelation as Diana. Vocally and emotionally, there’s never a moment when her performance isn’t driven by what’s going on in Diana’s mind and feelings.
While the story is ultimately about Dan, Diana (his wife and Natalie’s mother) is the world’s centre. Mental illness and grief dominate Diana’s life but van de Zant doesn’t let either define Diana.
Her performance is never about feeling sorry for Diana but about seeing the whole person and understanding what it’s like to suffer from an insidious and invisible illness.
The musical direction (Nathan Firmin with associate Ned Wright-Smith) is less rock than often expected with this score, which allows for a focus on the vocals and harmonies and ensures that every lyric and emotion is clear. And splitting the orchestra on both sides of the stage creates a full sound that that defies its size.
Next to Normal was cancelled twice during the Covid lockdowns and maybe the extra rehearsals and time helped to create a production that feels settled and confident. Regardless, it’s been worth the wait.
Next to Normal
Chapel off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Performance: Saturday 19 March 2022
Season continues to 27 March 2022
For more information, visit: www.nexttonormal.com.au for details.
Image: The 2022 Cast of Next to Normal photo by James Terry
Review: Anne-Marie Peard