Looking at the programme before the start of The Musical Stage Co’s production of Brian Yorkie & Tom Kitt’s domestic rock drama Next To Normal, it’s hard to miss the design inspiration taken from The Brady Bunch’s opening title credits. But that familiar imagery sets up expectations Next to Normal is quick to knock down.
The Goodman family lives in a giant-sized doll’s house. During the pre-show it’s hard not to feel the hulking presence of Steve Lucas’ set design. It’s distorted, not quite the classic doll’s house. It is darker and crooked. When the house lights go down, the house opens up, an invitation of sorts into the lives of the Goodman family. Through this invitation we are introduced to Diana (Ma-Anne Dionisio), the matriarch of the family. The first words out her mouth are, “They’re the perfect loving family. So Adoring.”. Quickly followed by what she truly thinks of her family. As we are introduced to more of Diana’s family, it becomes apparent that the Goodmans’ are the dysfunctional version of the Brady Bunch. Each member is struggling, and they are doing their best to keep it below the surface. There is Gabe (Brandon Antonio), an overly rebellious teenager, Natalie (Stephanie Sy), who just wants to get away from her family and Dan (Troy Adams), who is just trying to hold his family together.
Director Philip Akin doesn’t hold back the negativity or the dysfunction of the Goodmans. Akin’s Goodmans have no fight against the challenges facing them. Their form of resistance is trying to maintain this lifestyle they have as normal. It’s as if, from the moment the house opens up to the audience, we are not given the “fake” or public version of this family. We are thrown into the muck and enveloped in the black cloud hanging over their house. The challenges continue to grow for the Goodmans as their “normal” is threatened with a revelation that Diana’s mental health is compromised. The staging for this reveal was captivating and simple. I could feel the entire audience leaning forward, grasping for what was to come next. I will say, I wish in these opening moments, there was a bit more fight within the Goodmans. It felt a bit like the show was waiting for Diana’s reveal to really start going.
The family is knocked off its already precarious balance and is forced to fight back to maintain the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. Each member has their own way of dealing with the new family troubles. Natalie, pours herself into piano playing, to prep herself for her recital that will be her golden ticket away from her family. Sy plays Natalie deftly, balancing her hope to get away from her family with her deep-seated resentment that her accomplishments aren’t acknowledged by her family. Then there is Dan, trying to lead his family and be supportive of his wife as she goes through treatment. Adams is believable as Dan, a father who is not the natural leader of his household and is forced into being the decision maker/rock for the family. Diana must undergo countless drug treatments and evaluations from doctors, in order to stabilize her condition. Dionisio is simply a force, she gives Diana a mix of strength, tenderness and frailty. She continually flips between emotions and even when she is going through treatments, she manages to keep a life alive, just underneath the surface. The only character who seems to be separate from the pressure pushing down on the Goodman family is Gabe. In fact, it is only at the start of the show, when he asks his mother why his father hates him, that we see any real negativity from him. Otherwise, Antonio plays Gabe with a happy-go-lucky, confident, almost reckless abandon. The other aspect that comes through in Antonio’s performance is Gabe’s desperate need for attention. There are a couple instances where it is foreshadowed why this is. However, these are not too overt to majorly spoil anything for first time viewers.
We are given a breath of fresh air and a reprieve from the negative energy of the Goodman family when we are introduced to characters outside the family. Henry (Nathan Carroll) and Doctor Fine/Doctor Madden, who are both played by Louise Pitre. When Henry enters for the first time, Carroll’s goofiness and teenage uncertainty cuts through the dark thick cloud that has seemingly been growing darker since the start of the show. Henry is just a teenage boy who has fallen for Natalie. Sy and Carroll also have wonderful chemistry. It is this chemistry that gave me something to root for and a small glimmer of hope that things might turn around, at least for Natalie. While the Introductions of Doctor Fine and Doctor Madden are less positive, they do provide some rather comedic moments as well as some unexpected ones. Pitre plays both doctors with subtle differences, and I will say her rock star belts as Doctor Madden caught me completely off guard and I loved it. Typically, the doctor roles are played by as a man. However, with Pitre as the doctors, it enables them to connect and sympathize with Diana, in a way, that I imagine wouldn’t happen if the doctor was male.
This production of Next to Normal has not just gender-bent the doctor roles but also has a refreshingly diverse cast. The Goodman family are all actors of colour. Why does this matter? Why is this important? Well, we have all seen many shows over the years featuring predominantly white casts. We know that view point. That being said, it is about so much more than providing a new viewpoint and different perspective to audiences. I am able to see people who look like me in movies, theatre, tv and commercials. So basically everywhere. Not everyone has that. I have no idea how it must feel to see someone who resembles you in a show or a movie, especially when that is not the norm in the arts, but I know it’s important for everyone to feel like their story matters. It should be our normal…but it’s not yet.
The Musical Stage Co’s production of Next to Normal is sharp, at moments heartfelt and other moments laugh out loud funny, it features strong performances from the company and makes for a good night out at theatre.