Spring Awakening meets August Osage County meets Rent in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s new rock musical Next To Normal. A heart-breaking piece about a family in turmoil coping with their mother’s mental illness, Next To Normal is at times a gripping drama that avoids over-sentimentality by packing a punch of raw, unadulterated energy from a talented MTC cast.
Next To Normal premiered Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theater in 2008, before going to Washington DC for some re-working, finally landing at Broadway’s Booth Theatre in April 2009. The Melbourne Theatre Company’s acquisition of the work is fast, with Next To Normal only closing on Broadway in January of this year.
A critical and commercial success, Next To Normal missed out on winning the 2009 Tony Award for Best Musical to Billy Elliot. However, Tom Kitt’s score and Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics for the show won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The Melbourne Theatre Company’s cast is mostly even in their respective roles. Matt Hetherington portrays a strong, yet sensitive husband and father in Dan Goodman, while Bert LaBonte is completely engaging as Dr Fine and later, Dr Madden. Strangely, the TV star and drawcard of the show, Kate Kendall, doesn’t seem quite at home as the musical’s protagonist Diana Goodman. While she successfully displayed the vulnerability needed for the role, Kendall’s voice was not suited to several of the songs, particularly the heavier rock numbers, where to be fair she looked a little bit silly.
The highlight of Next To Normal is unquestionably the show’s three Melbourne Theatre Company debutantes Benjamin Hoetjes (Henry), Christy Sullivan (Natalie Goodman) and Gareth Keegan (Gabe Goodman) who all gave flawless performances. All three actors are recent graduates of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), with Keegan (2007), Sullivan (2009) and Hoetjes (2010) proving yet again how vital WAAPA is to the success of Australia’s performing arts industry.
Most members of an audience can relate in some way to the themes, if not the plot of Next To Normal. While this is far from your average musical, its heavier subject matter of mental illness hits home to anyone who has been affected in some way by similar situations in their own immediate and extended families or friends. Yorkey’s book is strong and Kitt’s score is at times beautiful; at other times raw and in your face. Hence all the comparisons to the likes of Spring Awakening. This is no musical comedy folks, but rather an intelligent piece of theatre that displays the darker, less public side of life.
Richard Roberts’ set design of a two-storey house is effective, impressive and functional, while Dean Bryant’s direction was intelligent. Although there were moments of the band visibly on stage upstairs on the set that bothered me, because they broke the illusion of the fourth wall in a show I was very much “inside” of, on the whole Next To Normal appears to be directed with precision and great care.
I can’t help thinking though when you have a musical with this subject matter, the intimacy of the 500-seat Sumner Theatre may have been a better choice than the two-tiered 850-seat Playhouse at The Arts Centre. It appears Next To Normal may have been programmed in the Playhouse for economic, not artistic reasons. No doubt intended as one of the MTC’s cash cows for the 2011 season, not surprisingly Next To Normal’s season has been extended until 4 June.