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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Theatre review: Next to Normal shines a light on mental health

Rock musical not only reveals the humanity in mental illness, but has the power to shake an audience

There is a reason Next to Normal won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  With a potent sense of honesty, this Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey penned rock musical not only reveals the humanity in mental illness, but has the power to shake an audience.

Directed by Chris Lam, the West Moon Theatre production, currently playing at Studio 16 in Vancouver, does not disappoint. With its cast of talented singers, storytellers, and musicians, they all come together to do a phenomenal job in performing its songs. You will move in your seat and, in turn, the story and songs will move you.

Next to Normal centres on Diana, a mother struggling with bipolar disorder, and her family’s journey with her illness. Brought into the family’s complicated life, the musical explores the effects of grief, mental illness, and the ethics of mental health treatment. There is also a major plot reveal that flips the story, complicating matters for the family even more.

At times though, the story feels overly dramatic and unrealistic, especially as Diana loses much of her memory after receiving electroconvulsive therapy, and can no longer remember her daughter’s name.

While the opening song of the second act feels chaotic and in need of more rehearsal, the rest of the show carries through. The second half does drag somewhat, but the length is a good metaphor for the endless struggle of mental illness. As her doctor reveals her mental illness as chronic, we are reminded that sometimes things are not perfect, and happy endings do not come wrapped in a tight bow.

Next to Normal pulls many heart strings, but one of the final scenes between Diana and her daughter Natalie is enough to create goosebumps. The song that accompanies, “Maybe (Next to Normal)”, pulls it all together.

With the exception of a single role, the production features two casts in different performances.  On the night of this review, there were many standouts.

As Diana, Marie West faced the challenge of this demanding role with grace and heart. Her portrayal of a woman struggling with bipolar disorder and grief is gut-wrenching. There are several explosive moments that create ripples through the crowd.

As daughter Natalie, Karina Teitz steals many scenes, with a sweet and strong voice. She portrays this struggling teenager in an honest way that we cannot help but connect.

The show features a talented band of six musicians, who are onstage during the entire show. With music at its centre, they are a pivotal piece to this production.

Next to Normal is an important story reminding us that mental health is real, human, but in the end, there can be light.

Next to Normal, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt. Directed by Chris Lam. A West Moon Theatre Production. On stage at Studio 16 (1555 West 7 Ave, Vancouver) until February 17. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.

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