When Next to Normal made its way through development and onto Broadway in 2009, it was something quite extraordinary: a show that broke through so many seeming boundaries of what the genre of musical theatre is or could be. Even as recently as 2009, the idea that something as difficult and complex as a family bending and breaking under the weight of grief and mental illness could be the subject of a musical, and be sensitive to those topics, was almost absurd.
Enter Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s show, a tightly-focused piece about the Goodman family. Diana, the matriarch, has a long history with mental illness when we meet her, and it becomes clear, quickly, that she’s not doing so well. Her husband Dan, and her daughter and son, try to live in this family as best they can.
Hayes Theatre Co is currently re-mounting Doorstep Arts’ production of the show, following a successful season in Geelong. Curiously, though, this show on stage, with all its prestige, all its excellent reviews preceeding it, manages to fall mostly flat.
Next to Normal won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, primarily, for changing in a bold way what was acceptable in musicals. It brought with it a promise of newer, darker stories. Of atypical people and problems, of heartbreak and struggle and dark, delicate topics handled with nuance.
The thing is, 2009 was six years ago. In the wider world of art and pop culture, we are exploring different stories, or similar stories with greater care, understanding, and depth. This show we’ve been waiting and waiting to have a Sydney season is starting to show its age now that it’s arrived.
Last year’s VCA workshop of A Little Touch of Chaos, a Millar/Rutherford work that hits hard, emotionally, about mental illness and broken families and love and loss, actually feels more blazingly outspoken and relevant to Australian audiences than Next to Normal does; there was an authenticity to the unfinished work that rang with more sincerity than the current production at the Hayes.
There is still a great deal to love about Next to Normal, and largely that exists in its structure, shape and form. More than just ground-breaking subject matter, one of the bigger achievements of Next to Normal is the way it shapes its musical theatre genre tools to support its subject matter. The numbers “You Don’t Know/I Am The One” are a great example of this. A solo that turns into another solo that evolves into a duet and finally a trio, the characters are expressing their pain, and whether or not this person they’re married to actually understands them at all. You don’t know how I feel/you don’t know who I am. The character that is the representation of the chasm between them sings too, and what happens is a musical image of that inability to connect with someone with whom you’re supposed to be inextricably connected. The characters sing across each other, at odds with each other; they don’t relate to each other at all, but they’re equally passionate. The way these numbers are framed are just as, if not more important than, the lyrics.
The Doorstep Arts production often feels misdirected, or at least bafflingly directed. The pacing of the first act hurts the show’s dramatic arc terribly because it’s rushed, and there’s no crescendo or worthwhile journey to its pivotal moment when a character walks onstage holding a birthday cake. That moment is brushed over almost dismissively, and it’s a big crack in the show as it starts to move into the real heart of the story.
Characters are established sloppily (with the exception of Diana, who is at the centre of it all, and played by Natalie O’Donnell). Weak lines are emphasised and strong ones buried. It’s difficult to invest in the character of Gabe (Brent Trotter), despite his beautiful voice. And it’s difficult to feel compassion for Henry (Clay Roberts), who has a real arc of growth and compassion and care (you can hear it in the structure of the music), when despite his strong and emotional falsetto and polished vocals, his performance is frequently heavy-handed.
Kiane O’Farrell plays Natalie, which is a large and difficult role of a difficult and brilliant girl, and she struggles both under the weight of the part’s range and under the American accent (the show probably could have been performed without them). She has some strong moments, particularly in her first song, “Everything Else”, but she only occasionally connects, musically, when her solos move into more emotional material.
Anthony Harkin’s Dan is the hapless father who doesn’t know quite how to anchor all these things and people together. He is very good at doing the wrong thing with mostly the right intentions, but you wouldn’t be wrong to call him selfish. He sings plaintively and with varying degrees of strength, but it’s not until the end of the second act that his performance gains a level of nuance that makes him interesting.
Natalie O’Donnell is at the heart of the show as Diana, as a grieving mother with bipolar who just wants to feel something. She fiery and she is wry but more than anything else she is brittle. She sings with surprising honest grace in “I Miss The Mountains”; afterwards, when her voice falls into a ragged husk it makes sense because, by that point in the character has been pushed as far as she really can be pushed before breaking. It’s a shame that the Act I finale doesn’t properly capture the significance of the event taking place; the stakes feel far too low.
When the show comes alive it does so strongly and well. O’Donnell’s Diana hits the right balance of emotion more often than not and sometimes looks so small dealing with something so large; she curls inward to protect herself, strains away from her husband and daughter, clutches to her son.
The staging device of bringing the house and items in it to life with chalk works well enough, except for a ‘real’ coffee mug that feels like it’s never heard of the Chekhov’s Gun concept; I kept waiting for this one recognisably breakable prop to shatter, but it never did. It also spends much of its time on the ground, which doesn’t work so well given the sightlines of the Hayes; a slightly raised stage might have been more effective. Much of the chalk imagery was lost to audience members beyond the first couple of rows.
The musical direction (by Alistair Smith) felt strained and performers entered into their songs hesitantly; transitions weren’t smooth between numbers and often the band sounded like they were vamping rather than playing the score, which wasn’t the case, but the atmosphere was off – a carry-over from the strange pace between lines, scenes, and looks.
The production suffers from a general lack of tightness, and Next to Normal needs to be a tight show. It’s really imperative that it is, because if it is not air-tight and blisteringly paced and assured, then everything that happens, and these strong complicated characters, start to feel pat, shallow, and two-dimensional (and a little bit sexist; Diana is frequently stripped of her agency by men, and Henry’s scenes with Natalie feel very much like she is getting Nice Guyed, rather than having met a nice guy).
Dropped lighting and sound cues on the night didn’t do anything to help this feeling of superficiality. It didn’t quite feel like a lack of care, but the production felt disappointingly rushed to the stage, which should not the case for a reprised run.
There are moments that land and connect, but not enough.
Next to Normal was a Pulitzer prize winner because it proved you could make a show about something deeply painful and do it with maturity and care. Doorstep Arts’ production fails because it refuses to meet that philosophy, or it has tried and failed; it walks through the show, plays up its flashy moments and buries its moment of quiet truth, and the end result is tiring. It may well settle, in its run, into something more palatable, into a emotional journey that feels earned, but on opening night, it wasn’t there yet.