You know you’re in the presence of outstanding storytelling when you’re surrounded by audible sobs. Next To Normal is a musical about bipolar and is as moving as it is dark, but then that’s to be expected since it’s about a family’s battle with mental illness. I mention it’s a family’s battle because even though mother and wife Diana Goodman is diagnosed with bipolar, mania and depression, the entire family are propelled along for the bumpy ride.
Like Diana’s prognosis, a happy ending for Next to Normal is unlikely, but there are many moments of lightness and even hilarity in parts. That’s kind of the point though. The range of emotions you feel during the performance are as wide as The Goodmans’. As their world falls apart, you’re also going to have your heart broken, put back together and then shattered all over the kitchen tiles alongside the sandwiches Diana prepares on the floor. There is however some resolution as they settle on being “next to normal.” It’s a powerful message and relatable to any family.
Many years ago the production began as a ten minute show called Feeling Electric about shock therapy in response to the high percentage of male doctors prescribing electroshock therapy to female patients. Writers Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt worked on the production for the better part of nine years before it even made it to Broadway where it was further workshopped. Clearly, their hard work paid off as they went on to win a Pulitzer (only eight musicals have received the Pulitzer for Drama since 1918) and three Tony Awards. Their treatment of the themes of grief, love, loss, and illness are gently handled as a musical with a mix between pop and rock. That alone is left-of-field and as each character chimes into melody the heaviness is not only lifted but leaves me in awe of the range of talent on the stage.
The characters’ evolution is further punctuated by the songs they sing, like when Natalie and boyfriend Henry’s feelings for one another blossom in the song Perfect For You. Or when Diana lashes out at Doctor Madden for prescribing shock therapy with Didn’t I See This Movie? The messages aren’t all in the music though and Diana’s line, “I disinfected the entire house, rewired the computer and did some decoupage. Hmm…Next. I think I’ll retile the roof,” beautifully sums up what an episode of mania looks like. Strobe lighting is symbolic of shock therapy and the rotating stage demonstrates the movement of life, regardless of how painful it may be.
Rachael Beck plays Diana and is no stranger to stage productions like Beauty and the Beast where she played alongside Hugh Jackman, not to mention numerous screen roles in Home & Away and Stingers. This is Shannen Alyce’s (Natalie) debut with Black Swan, who graduated alongside James Bell (Gabe) at WAAPA in 2010, with Joel Horwood (Henry) also a WAAPA graduate in 2014. Michael Cormick’s (Doctor Madden) long list of credits include Mamma Mia, Rocky Horror Show and Cats and Brendan Hanson (Dan) has starred in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Les Miserables and Carmen.
Black Swan State Theatre Company presents Next To Normal plays at the State Theatre of Centre of Western Australia 7-22 November 2015