Next to Normal

Hayes Theatre Co, January 14

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana. Photo: suplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana. Photo: suplied

A musical about manic depression? The brave choice of subject matter was part of Next to Normal’s cachet when it debuted Off-Broadway and then moved to Broadway in 2009, winning three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

For all the kudos, the musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) is a flawed piece – though it is movingly performed in this production from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts.

The story centres on Diana (Natalie O’Donnell), a grief-stricken, suburban mother with bipolar disorder, and the impact this has on her husband Dan (Anthony Harkin), daughter Natalie (Kiane O’Farrell) and son Gabe (Brent Trotter).

It’s a dark show, and could do with a little more light among the shade – though the uplifting ending feels pat and unconvincing given all that has gone before. The way revelations are staggered during the piece, however, is cleverly done, adding punch to the drama.

The lyrics tend too often towards the platitudinous and the way grief is conflated with bipolar disorder feels a bit hazy, the explanation from one of the psychiatrists being that the condition can be triggered by a trauma.

The music ranges from rock to gentle ballads. Some of it works powerfully but at other times it feels somewhat relentless. The show is essentially sung-through and you can’t help feeling that some dialogue scenes would make for tighter, deeper storytelling and give the show more room to breathe.

So, not the greatest musical ever written. However, Darylin Ramondo directs a tight production that moved me more than the previous one I saw.

Her design (conceived with Jolyon James) has a suggestion of the film Dogville about it. Taking its cue from a comment Diana makes about her world being black, white and grey, the set is black with a few boxes and a table, onto which the performers draw their environment and vent their emotions with white chalk: an effective device.

Ramondo has also cast the production well. O’Donnell – who spent time with a lady suffering with bipolar as part of her research – is heartbreaking as Diana, portraying her pain and confusion as well as her defiant strength. With her petite frame she looks so slight and vulnerable at times, and then suddenly seems to blaze. She brings warmth and humanity to the role and her beautiful rendition of I Miss the Mountains – in which Diana sings of missing the highs and lows of her condition, which are evened out by her meds – is a highlight.

Harkin is also impressive as the stalwart, devoted but conflicted Dan, who is struggling more than he lets on. Clay Roberts brings an endearing playfulness to Henry, the loyal, stoner boyfriend of Natalie, sympathetically played by O’Farrell. Trotter brings powerful vocals to the role of Gabe, though his dark portrayal would benefit from a little more nuance. Alex Rathgeber is also in fine voice as the two doctors.

This is the first production of Next to Normal seen in Sydney (a production planned for the Capitol Theatre in 2012 didn’t happen) and therefore much anticipated. The show itself may not live up to expectations but the production itself makes it well worth a look.

Next to Normal plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until February 1

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 18