Next To Normal is the 2008 rock musical with music by Tom Kitt with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. It is a musical that deals with some incredibly complex and sensitive issues. It tells the story of a woman’s struggle with Bi-Polar Disorder and the effects it has on her family. The musical also addresses the issues of grief, suicide, drug abuse, modern psychiatry and the underbelly of suburban life.
Diana is the mother of the family, who on the outside looks like a normal, middle class family. But not all is as it seems. This challenging role is bought to us by Leah Gargano, who plays this role so earnestly, with such a genuine, real feel. Suffering Bi-Polar Disorder along with anxiety and delusions, not once did I ever doubt the thought processes and feelings that Diana was sharing with us. Gargano’s voice goes from soft and sweet to strong and forceful, with each note taking us on her journey with her. Particular highlights were “You Don’t Know” and “I Miss The Mountains’. Her interactions with each of her family members are so believable, and more than once she had the audience in tears. Every part of this role was handled with such sensitivity, it was so wonderful to watch.
Diana’s long suffering husband Dan is portrayed thoughtfully and sweetly by Tim McDonald. He gives the character a soft edge, but not hiding the anguish he feels everyday trying to keep his family together and staying strong during the hard times. Vocally McDonald sang well, although some more vocal strength would have helped express himself more clearly at times. His interactions with his wife were loyal and tender through to the end, and his relationship with his daughter was loving and honest.
Jessica Ciccarelli plays Natalie, the teenage daughter of Diana and Dan. What a voice this woman has! Powerful and emotional, she portrays the strained relationship with her mother beautifully, and her path that follows her mothers treatment and hospitalization is heartbreaking, but Ciccarelli plays it with such genuine empathy and sensitivity, you can’t help but to be on her side. Her saving grace is her boyfriend Henry (Miles Thompson) who whist not always vocally strong, has great comic timing and brings several moments of light to the otherwise dark story.
Stephen Amos brings us Gabe, the son of Diana and Dan. Amos is an absolute powerhouse, whose voice is so strong and powerful and whose performance is so commanding I was left holding my breath several times. “I’m Alive” really showcases all of Amos’ talents, and you really can’t take your eyes off him every time he is on the stage. His Duet with Ciccarelli on “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” is divine, with their voices blending beautifully and the emotions running high.
This production was presented in the intimate Doncaster Playhouse, which was a great venue for this production. The set was simple yet effective, as was the lighting plot. The costume design bought the piece into current times, with subtle use of color to lighten several scenes.
Director Bernadette Sheedy should be applauded for presenting this piece with such empathy. When dealing with such sensitive, relevant topics, it is so important to not overplay certain scenes. It is clear that a lot of research has gone into this production and its medical settings like the electroconvulsive therapy in particular, which in turn means that our sympathy and love for these characters and their journeys grows deeper.
The band was cohesive, playing the difficult score well. At times there were some balance issue with the sound, and the drums often overpowered the rest of the band and the performers, but the sound when balanced was excellent.
Next to Normal deals with so many complex issues, illnesses and themes, and some scenes may be upsetting to patrons, particularly younger audience members. If you do find anything within the show triggering for you, you will find a list of services you can reach out to in the back of the program.
Next to Normal presented by Oxagen Productions is on at The Doncaster Playhouse from August 2 – 11 2018.