by Lynn on September 10, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

Next to Normal

 At the Lower Ossington Theatre, Toronto. Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Music by Tom Kitt. Directed by Heather Braaten. Set by Michael Galloro. Costumes by Kathleen Black. Lighting by Mikael Kangas. Starring: Graham Fleming, Michael Collin Jones, Jacqueline Martin, Kylie McMahon, David Michael Moote, Mark Willett.

The Lower Ossington Theatre Company produces Next to Normal which plays until September 29.

Next to Normal is the new kind of Broadway musical. Sobering story; simple set; no glitz and glitter of the bye-gone mega-musical days. It won all sorts of awards when it was on Broadway from 2009-2011, including the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It’s about a family in distress. Diana Goodman has been suffering from bipolar disease and severe depression for years. She has not really accepted that her son Gabe died years before.  She imagines he is with her as a strapping 18-year-old. She sees him. She sings to him. He sings to her. He is a presence in that household even though no one else can see him. Dan Goodman, Diana’s husband, is a caring, patient man who tries to understand and emotionally support Diana. Natalie Goodman is Diana and Dan’s teenaged daughter. She is studying music. She feels left out; forgotten with all the tip-toeing around Diana. Her mother pays little attention to her and Natalie feels abandoned in a way with her mother’s illness taking precedence and her father always caring for her. That leaves little time for anyone caring about Natalie. She has a boyfriend named Henry who is also understanding, but Natalie is so absorbed in her own unhappiness that she gives him little attention. And finally there is Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, two psychiatrists who try to bring her along to be healthy while prescribing pills and electroshock therapy.

The music by Tom Kitt has a throbbing drive to it, an urgency, which fits the story. The book and lyrics of Brian Yorkey are thoughtful, probing, brooding and certainly dig deep to reveal character and move the story. It’s a challenging piece, whether it involves professional actor/singers or recent musical theatre graduates just itching to get experience as they begin their careers.

Bravo as always to the Lower Ossington Theatre Company’s constant support of young theatre school students and graduates. But, man, is this production of Next to Normal a challenge.

I note from the program that there is a band of six musicians. My eyebrows crinkle. I can appreciate a band of six in a 1500 seat theatre. But the Lower Ossington Theatre has a seating capacity of about 150. Whose idea was it for a band of six to play the music and not just one piano? And then there’s the amplification which seems to be de rigueur in musicals no matter how small the venue. What is that about? The band is mic’d and so is the cast in order to be heard over the band. Ridiculous. What are these young people trained in at these theatre schools if not voice projection, diction, enunciation and vocal coaching to name a small few of the things they should be learning. If they need to be mic’d in a small venue then something is wrong.

When the band starts playing the music/sound is blaring.  When the cast begins singing they are singing full out and that too is blaring. Often I can’t hear what they are singing for being drowned out by the band.

As Diana, Kylie McMahon conveys the stress and angst of this tormented woman, pining for her son and her sanity. As Dan, her husband, Mark Willett is caring and concerned. As Natalie, Jacqueline Martin has a strong voice but seems strangely facially non-expressive. As Gabe, the haunting, angry son, Graham Fleming too has a strong voice but mumbles most of his lines in such a muffled way that even the head mike could not make what he says clear. Surely director Heather Braaten could have helped here as well as stage this thing to within an inch of its life. Both Colin Jones as Henry and David Moote as both Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden acquitted themselves well.

This whole business of amplification in the theatre has to be revisited. And I want everybody who is involved with Next to Normal to go to the Shaw Festival and see The Light in the Piazza, the glorious musical by Adam Guettel. It plays in the 327 seat Court House Theatre. There is a band of 3 and a cast of about 10. No one is mic’d and you could hear both the band and the cast clearly. That’s what musical theatre is all about.

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