Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, has taken the world of theatre by storm in recent years, gaining recognition for its powerful storyline and emotional subject matter. The show focuses on a woman suffering from mental illness and the effects which it has on her husband and teenage daughter. The Broadway production won three of its 11 Tony nominations in 2009, and made its professional premiere in Melbourne in 2011.
Williamstown Music Theatre opens its season of Next To Normal tonight, November 9th, featuring a cast of 6 actors who have worked tirelessly on the piece over the past few months. With Rosa McCartney as Diana, Paul Watson as Dan, Michael Butler as the Doctor and Bradley Dylan, Brittany Lewis and Zac Alaimo as Gabe, Natalie and Henry respectively, under the direction of Shaun Kingma and musical direction of Tyson Legg, the cast have relished the experience of working so closely in a small group to do this fantastic piece of theatre justice.
Rosa McCartney (Diana) noted the difference in the way the cast has worked as being significant, “For me the most striking difference in this show is the size of cast. In most productions the cast can range anywhere from 15 to over 30. Working with a small cast of six is a new experience for me; and has had quite a different dynamic. There’s a sense of intimacy, closeness, and genuine investment to one another that is generated when you are all actively contributing to each other’s character and story.”
Diana is a reputably complex role for actors, and Rosa has embraced the challenge wholeheartedly. “Diana Goodman would have to be one of the most complex, multilayered female characters in musical theatre. The complexity of her decisions and actions mean that everything can be interpreted in infinite ways. Initially the prospect of playing a character who has bipolar disorder was daunting. I had many invaluable discussions with Shaun Kingma over the rehearsal process where we talked through Diana’s story scene by scene – her motivations, decisions, and consequences. From this scaffold, and in concert with research and discussion, the layers of Diana’s character developed over time. I think the characteristic of Diana I most admire is her sense of freedom. She has spent 16 years being classified, moulded, analysed, and ‘treated’ in an attempt to make her behaviour and thoughts more ‘normal’. Yet throughout all of these trials she has the courage to always seek freedom in what she feels – she is defiant of the authority of social pressure to behave as a woman ‘should’. Diana is not constrained by the society’s perception of what is acceptable – even though the decisions she makes has eventual consequences of all those around her.”
Another fantastic character in the show is Natalie, Diana’s daughter. Musically gifted but overshadowed by the turmoil in her family, the role is tackled by Brittany Lewis. “When I first had a read-through of the script and tried to understand Natalie, the thing that stood out the most was that it could be very easy to find her annoying. She is supposed to be quite self-centred and immature to begin with, which I think is realistic, but I think it’s interesting to watch how she grows and comes to understand her mother’s illness – and even accept that there might be a piece of her that will inevitably follow her mother’s path of mental instability. I think it’s important to find the lighter side to Natalie as well; the show is quite dark sometimes, but there are moments of comic relief and I think that’s what brings her to life. Next to Normal has been a different experience for me in the sense that it feels more naturalistic. With characters, especially from older musicals, you have some idea of how they are usually played; even what they look like and what they wear. But the characters of this show are so real that you are almost playing yourself, just with your character’s emotion layered on top. It’s very pared back, and I think that makes it closer to the bone somehow. And then of course we’re singing on top of that, so it’s an interesting combination of reality and theatre that we’re trying to create.”
With tickets starting at $28, a night out at Next to Normal is an affordable evening of entertainment that is bound to evoke emotional and leave an impact long after you leave the theatre. The show will be playing at Williamstown Mechanic’s Institute from November 9th-24th (including a black tie gala opening and Devonshire tea matinee) and tickets can be purchased at www.wtmc.org.au
“Next to Normal is a very real show. For people who love musical theatre but are after something tangible, it deals with heavier issues which can be a lot more confronting. There is a beautiful combination of poignancy and humour written into the music and lyrics of the show, and I think that this is a really striking mixture that people will find really accessible. It sort of allows you to get closer to the darker side of Next to Normal through something that is comfortable and that you know, which is really what it’s all about: this is a normal family dealing with real issues that are faced every day. It’s a remarkable show, and I’m really excited for people to see what we’ve managed to realize together.” (Brittany Lewis).