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Abnormally intimate

by Drew Rowsome
Photos by Guntar Kravis




Next to Normal runs until Sun, Sept 29 at the Lower Ossington Theatre, 100a Ossington Ave. lowerossingtontheatre.com

The Lower Ossington Theatre has never been short of ambition and with Next to Normal, it tackles a difficult piece of musical theatre on a tough topic, and triumphs. The original production of Next to Normal  - which Toronto was lucky enough to see a touring version of in the summer of 2011 - won Tonys as well as a Pulitzer, an honour usually reserved for serious or groundbreaking plays. Next to Normal is very serious - mental illness and the effect it has on a family is heavy and disconcerting source material for musical theatre. Making it a 'rock musical' does somewhat alleviate the pressure but also creates a new set of problems - the cues for guitar chords are usually tied to the seductively evil doctor or the onset of manic madness, so all the energetic movement of the score is also implicitly condemned, making the entire score static.

Unfortunately the original creators never solved the problem of how to illustrate or reveal the inner workings of the lead's madness: we never get to identify with her because we simply don't know how she feels, she is only allowed to tell us how she feels. The gorgeous number "I Miss the Mountains" comes closest and Kylie McMahon seizes the moment and applies her supple and pure voice to it achingly. McMahon does what she can and is expert at deadpanning very bitter - and very funny - lines, but the character remains cipher-like despite the audience's eagerness, thanks to McMahon's engaging aura, to identify and empathize.

Director Heather Braaten and the more than able cast solve the problem of the text by shifting Next to Normal from a diva vehicle to an intimate family saga. Each character shines as a member of an ensemble, the mother's madness may upstage their family but not this company. Mark Willett leaves his schticky character from Avenue Q far behind and reveals a stunning voice and an empathy-garnering persona that turns him into a centre of gravity that the entire production revolves around. His final moments were shocking and heartbreaking, and all the more so from being subtly and solidly built. Jacqueline Martin reins in her powerhouse voice and creates a daughter who is conflicted, tortured and sensible, sometimes within a single vocal phrase. Colin James is puppy-dog cute as Henry but doesn't hesitate to belt when the opportunity arrives.

David Moote takes the "scary rockstar" caricature and puts a very sexy, and comically self-aware, spin on a character that could very easily have been the villain or a plot point. It is the showy sexy role that is usually played at LOT by Graham Fleming who this time gets a much more difficult part. An important plot point hinges on "Gabe" so best to just congratulate Fleming on a job well done and lament that his vocals were mixed low on the night we attended. The words in Next to Normal are crucially important and extremely intricately constructed which made the imperfect sound troublesome - hopefully as the run proceeds the stellar band will get a chance to really rock and the singers to soar.

Next to Normal is a hard sell as an evening's entertainment - despite a brave attempt at a final rousing anthem it is not a feel-good musical - but a provocative and thought-provoking one. And this production delves deeply into the dynamics and drama of a specific family to open a discussion about madness, pills, love, loss and all our families. Very few will have the exact awful angst of the Next to Normal family but after experiencing it the audience has more empathy for their own and that of their neighbours.

Next to Normal runs until Sun, Sept 29 at the Lower Ossington Theatre, 100a Ossington Ave. lowerossingtontheatre.com

 

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