Does such a thing as a normal family exist, especially if a member of the family is experiencing the effects of mental illness? This is the question that the Pulitzer Prize winning musical ‘Next to Normal’ poses. A story of adjustment, identity and grief, ‘Next to Normal’ is striking in its authenticity, navigating the complexities of familial, romantic and professional relationships. It tackles the impact of mental illness in a manner that is simultaneously understated and emotionally intense, making it all the more engaging. Confronting in just how vividly it renders a reality that is close to home for many, it is an ambitious piece executed well by Phoenix Players.
Janelle McMenamin delivers an emotive and versatile performance in the central role of Diana. Her portrayal of Diana’s experience of mental illness is open and engaging, as both an individual and a part of the family unit. Husband Dan (Grant Pegg) is a well-intentioned character who is revealed as increasingly complex, which Pegg depicts persuasively, especially in the second act. The couple’s son Gabe (Will Huang) adds a fascinating element, and Huang nails the repertoire in a powerful performance. Kaitlin Nihill is exceptional as teenage daughter Natalie, with an impassioned and expressive depiction of adolescence exploring her own identity and her relationship with her mother. Her romance with Henry (Daniel Steer) is endearing, and Steer captures the character well, while also providing another external perspective to the family. Joel Hutchings (Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden) provides an excellent counterpoint to the interactions within the family, with a clinical, professional character also supported by strong vocal skill. It’s a convincing dynamic on stage, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in the intricacies of the writing.
‘Next to Normal’ features a sophisticated and natural crafting of dialogue, balancing humour with poignancy and pathos. The narrative blends with the rock score effortlessly, enlivened by a capable band. For a small, highly talented cast of six, the performers achieve a distinct harmonic richness most apparent in numbers such as “Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling” and “Better than Before”.
The action is enhanced by well-considered lighting, mostly fairly simple with a few striking effects complementary to the action on stage. The set, a mixture of furnished areas and exposed scaffolding against a striking geometric background, perhaps lacked some cohesion, yet its functionality married very well with the staging and choreography. Minimal technical issues occurred, with the odd microphone delay or issues with balancing levels not being of significant concern and barely distracting from the engaging nature of the piece.
Its capacity to inspire real emotion speaks volume to the quality of the writing and the strength of the performances in conveying such depth of characterisation. It was certainly well deserving of the standing ovation received from various parts of the audience. Appealing in its wit and complexity, ‘Next to Normal’ is a compelling piece of theatre and well worth a look. Be sure to bring tissues.