Stage Door Review 2019

Next to Normal

May 4, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

music by Tom Kitt, book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey, directed by Philip Akin

The Musical Stage Company, CAA Theatre, Toronto

May 1-19, 2019

Diana: “Maybe I’ve lost it at last.

Maybe my last lucid moment has past.

I’m dancing with death, I suppose.

But really, who knows?”

The Musical Stage Company has mounted a splendid production of Next to Normal, the 2008 musical by Tom Kitt and Brain Yorkey that won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Pulitzer committee commended the work for “expanding the scope of subject matter for musicals” in that it is the first successful musical to take on a mother’s bipolar disorder and its effect on her family as its topic. In doing so, Next to Normal opened the way for other musicals about ordinary people coping with mental illness such in the currently running Dear Evan Hansen by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul from 2015, also presented by Mirvish Productions. With a flawless cast under the sensitive direction of Philip Akin, this is a production music theatre fan will not want to miss.

The story centres on Diana Goodman (Ma-Anne Dionisio), who has been suffering from bipolar disorder and psychosis for the past sixteen years. As we discover Diana’s mental condition has been triggered by the death of her first child a son Gabriel at the age of eight months. In her delusions, however, she still sees and interacts with Gabriel (Brandon Antonio) as if he had lived and grown to be a teenager. Diana’s obsession with her son has led her to neglect her teenaged daughter Natalie (Stephanie Sy), an obsessive overachiever, all of her life. And it has driven her husband Dan (Troy Adams) into depression and despair. 

Since none of the various drug combinations that Diana’s psychopharmacologist Dr. Fine (Louise Pitre) has prescribed have been successful, Dan finally secures an appointment for Diana with a “rock star” psychotherapist Dr. Madden (also Pitre). Things seem to be going well at first, but when Diana tries to clean out Gabriel’s things she feels the pull to join him in death and attempts suicide. After this, Dr. Madden recommends ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) which has memory loss as one of its known side-effects. 

Act 2 of the musical deals primarily with Diana’s attempts to recover her memory and Dan’s fear that she revive her delusions of Gabriel and cause a relapse into depression. Simultaneously, Natalie, who has been falling in love with the stoner jazz music student Henry (Nathan Carroll), begins to experiment with taking some of Diana’s old medications in order to cope with the anxiety that her family situation is causing her.

Next to Normal is a remarkable musical for many reasons beyond its unusual subject matter. Most notable is that the score includes 37 musical numbers and minimal dialogue so that it is much closer to a rock opera than to a conventional musical. Very few of the numbers are designed as showstoppers expressing personal desire as in a traditional musical. Rather, in most numbers the principal singer with be joined or interrupted by other singers singing to different melodies. In one novel sequence four singers, each singing their own melody, join together in a single ensemble. Even reprises are not simple reprises but use different lyrics to the repeated melody.

The most unusual aspect of Next to Normal is its ending. After two hours of making us wonder whether Diana will or will not be able to control her depression and will finally be able to accept that her son his dead and grieve for him, the musical’s creators leave us hanging. Near the end Diana sings to Natalie, “I’m dancing with death, I suppose. But really, who knows?” And if she doesn’t know, neither do we. The Natalie-Henry subplot reaches a conclusion. We’re given an unexpected revelation into Dan’s life. But as for Diana we are given no answer. 

On the one hand, some may see this as a major flaw. How many musicals end with the central issue unresolved? On the other hand, while seeing Diana reach a breakthrough and overcome her depression would be emotionally satisfying it would also be extremely sentimental. There are no easy answers in treating mental illness and the musical leaves us with none. If the focus of Next to Normal is about how Dan and Natalie finally manage to accommodate themselves to Diana’s illness, then we see that the musical does end on that note. 

Although an unresolved ending is a daringly anti-Broadway move, it is too bad that Kitt and Yorkey try to spin this indefiniteness into a stirring hymn “Light” to close the show on a positive note. The whole ensemble sings: “Day after day (day after day), We'll find the will to find our way, Knowing that the darkest skies will someday see the sun” even though the lyrics contradict Diana’s conclusion “But really, who knows?” just four numbers earlier. 

For a show focussed on presenting an accurate portrayal of mental illness, it is strange that the creators have so little concern in presenting an accurate portrayal of its treatment. In real life, patients are typically not sent first to a psychopharmacologist for pills and only when that regimen fails sent off to a psychotherapist. The musical shows the psychopharmacologist adjusting Diana’s medications every few weeks. That’s ridiculous and likely a hangover from when earlier versions of the show satirized the medical profession. Anti-depressants can take months to have an effect so the depiction of Dr. Fine making frequent “adjustments” may be satirical but it is also misleading. The show’s depiction of ECT is fantastical. A patient undergoing ECT is put under a general anesthetic and therefore should have no awareness of the procedure while it is happening. This means the song “Wish I Were Here” where Diana describes her sensations during ECT is completely bogus. 

Nevertheless, disregarding the show’s medical inaccuracies and its ending or non-ending, there is no doubt that unlike any previous Broadway musical it portrays personal psychology and the nature of family’s psychological interrelationships in a far more complex way than ever before. Director Philip Akin knows this and has drawn minutely detailed performances, the kind one hopes to see in non-musical theatre, from his entire flawless cast.

Chief among these is Ma-Anne Dionisio. She may be famous because of her roles in Les Misérables and especially Miss Saigon, but the role of Diana gives her a character of far greater complexity with a wider emotional arc than any role she has played before. It is a constant pleasure to see her embrace the challenges of the role and in doing so display the breadth of her talents in a brighter light than ever before. Dionisio has so many fine moments in the show it is difficult to choose any one. Of her many songs, it is probably her one uninterrupted solo “I Miss the Mountains” about the highs and lows of manic-depression that has the strongest impact with its quiet yet devastating final line “I miss my life”.

The most unusual role in the musical is that of Gabriel, a ghost or hallucination, who may be the inspiration for the ghost of Connor, who haunts Evan in Dear Evan Hansen. Newcomer Brandon Antonio has a sweet, vivacious voice of more substance than that of any current young male pop stars. It is crucial that he is both physically and vocally attractive since the musical in one of its most daring moves reveals that Gabriel has two completely contrasting natures. Yes, he is the dear boy that Diana has lost and never fully mourned, but his life continues in Diana’s mind only to her detriment. Worse, it is Gabriel, who presents Diana with the idea of joining him in death in the eerie “There’s a World”. Antonio slides between the two poles of boisterous remembered son and sinister tempter with appropriately frightening ease.

As Dan, Troy Adams displays a highly expressive, honey-toned voice that helps win our immediate sympathy. Adams is excellent at portraying the strain within Dan of trying to hope that things will work out in face of the fact that Diana seems to relapse as often as she improves. As Natalie, Stephanie Sy has the difficult task of proving to us that her character is more than the short-tempered perfectionist we first meet. The potential harshness in her voice only helps reinforce our negative impression. Luckily, she can modulate her tone as in the lovely duet with Henry, “Perfect For You”. Sy makes Natalie’s descent from personal rigour into general abandon completely believable as well as her recognition that living life according to unattainably high standards may have contributed to her inability to cope well with her mother.

The two completely sane characters in the musical are complete opposites. The Henry of Nathan Carroll is an often stoned jazz musician, but he is not always in such a haze that he can’t recognize the good in someone like Natalie even if she can’t see it. Carroll’s smooth, soothing voice helps project his character’s calming qualities into the songs he sings. 

It is luxury casting to have Louise Pitre play Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden. The role was written for and has previously only been performed by a male actor, but Pitre’s voice has matured to such an extent that she has a very strong lower register. It also feels right to have Diana’s doctors be women since it eliminates the unpleasant notion that Diana is always at the mercy of men and helps keep the focus on the notion that Diana’s principal struggle is with her self. Pitre keeps the manic, nonsensical Dr. Fine totally distinct from the calm, compassionate Dr. Madden. It’s a pity the creators refer to Dr. Madden as a “rock star” therapist – there is no such thing unless the reference is to exorbitant fees – but it does allow Pitre to show she can still pull out a rock ’n’ roll voice and moves when she needs to.

It is quite unusual that a musical that almost completely avoids a feel-good vibe and demands such a complex response to its story should have found so much success on Broadway and around the world. Yet, Next to Normal provides an ideal showcase for performers who excel in singing as much as they do in acting. When it is as compellingly performed as in this MTSC production, we feel as though some essential, cliché-breaking truth about the world has been exposed. No, Next to Normal will not leave you dancing in the aisles. Instead, it’s taken on the extraordinary task for a musical of leaving you thinking about the mysteries of thought, personhood and ties that bind people together. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (from top) Ma-Anne Dionisio as Diana and Brandon Antonio as Gabriel; Louise Pitre as Dr. Madden, Brandon Antonio as Gabriel and Ma-Anne Dionisio as Diana; Stephanie Sy as Natalie and Nathan Carroll as Henry. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.