By Lori Bosworth
The topic of depression and bi-polar disorder isn’t usually the subject of foot-tapping entertainment. The Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical, Next to Normal currently playing at the Lower Ossington Theatre in Toronto, wraps the theme of mental illness into a musical package that is not only palatable, but iPod worthy. With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the score, not surprisingly, won the Tony Award for Best Score in 2009 and the play garnered another 10 Tony nominations.
Next to Normal tells the story of housewife Diana Goodman’s battle with manic-depressive moods and a tragedy from her past that continues to haunt her. Diana’s illness takes its toll on her family while her medications seem to have no effect on her episodes. As a result, the Goodman family decides to consult the doctor for more serious measures.
The play is a welcome vehicle for opening up the dialogue on mental illness, which, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, is experienced by 1 in 5 Canadians and the often poorly-prescribed treatments by the medical community. To further this objective, the Lower Ossington Theatre’s production of Next to Normal is in support of community neighbour CAMH Foundation, to get more people talking about mental health issues and remove the stigma of these illnesses. For that reason alone, Next to Normal is a laudable artistic achievement.
Jacqueline Martin is convincing as Natalie, the distressed daughter who experiences disconnection from her mother and insecurity in romance. Colin Jones as Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry, brings a clumsy sensitivity to the role and demonstrates a tender singing voice, particularly sweet in the duet with Martin, “Perfect for You.”
Some of the standout songs included an upbeat rock number, “I’m Alive,” performed by Graham Fleming as Gabe. Fleming has one of the strongest voices in the play and it was showcased in this vocally challenging piece. “I Miss the Mountains,” performed by Kylie McMahon, is a powerful ballad that serves as a compelling argument against pharmaceutical drug treatments. McMahon captured some of Diana’s frenetic energy on “You Don’t Know,” an edgy rock number. Martin displayed control of a powerhouse voice in all of her vocals, most notably on “Everything Else.” The closing number, “Light,” was superbly executed by the cast. Conductor Paul Moody, who was exemplary on keyboards, led a tightly synchronized band.
Michael Galloro’s multi-level stage was modern and minimalistic and highlighted with spectacular lighting by Mikael Kangas.
Where the play fell short was in the actors’ inability to convey their understanding of the gravity of Diana’s depression and this was demonstrated in inadequate reactions to her illness. Despite this lack of depth, the Lower Ossington Theatre’s Next to Normal is a well executed production, with dynamic rock numbers and an eye opener on the need for more enlightenment and compassion with respect to mental illness.
Next to Normal opened August 29, 2013 at the Lower Ossington Theatre, Main Stage at 100A Ossington Avenue for an indefinite run. Tickets are $49-$59.