A Light in the Dark
Clearwater Theatre finds the truth in a complex show
by Stuart Munro
“I am the one who knows you
I am the one who cares
I am the one who’s always been there
I am the one who’s helped you
And if you think that I just don’t give a damn
Then you just don’t know who I am”
So sings Dan, the husband of Diana, about halfway through the first act of the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. Diana has been struggling with bipolar disorder for the better part of sixteen years, but it seems as though this is the first time that Dan is at a loss for what to do. After this, the roller coaster of emotions really takes off, and it becomes clear why Next to Normal is referred to as the “feel everything musical.”
I knew it had been powerful, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.
I first saw the show three years ago shortly after it opened on Broadway. I’d never heard of it, but all the people I was meeting in New York said I needed to see it. So I strolled by the box office one day to see what was available that evening for cheap. I sat in the last seat of the last row in the balcony, and for the next two and a half hours I was completely overwhelmed—so much so that I had a hard time processing everything I’d taken in. I knew it had been powerful, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I saw the first national tour last summer and this time, being more familiar with the music, I was able to appreciate the structure of the show a bit better. But Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre wasn’t an ideal venue, and the experience left me wanting a bit more.
Clearwater Theatre Company’s production has found the perfect balance, and for the first time this show was able to take me along for the emotional ride without leaving me stranded in its dust.
Central to this success is director Kate Stevenson’s clear vision. Ms. Stevenson never allows the pacing to lag, and manages to use the tiny space of the Tarragon Backspace to blur the lines between the physical and the emotional. Rather than always keeping simultaneously occurring scenes on opposite ends of the stage, they overlap, textually and physically—the intense emotions being shared allow the space to be shared as well. It creates a far more personal and intimate experience. In fact, I think Next to Normal works better in a smaller space than it does on a Broadway stage. Rather than any one character standing out, the show feels like a true ensemble piece, and the characters’ interconnectedness manages to crystallize in a way I’ve never experienced before. Ms. Stevenson is to be applauded.
It requires a strong cast to translate it into something meaningful. This Next to Normal has that strong cast.
Now, this next point may get me into some trouble with Next to Normal fans, but I don’t think Tom Kitt’s music or Brian Yorkey’s lyrics and book are fantastic. The scenes are short (sometimes too short), and the lyrics are at times repetitive and often try too hard to find a rhyme. Don’t get me wrong, the material is good, just not great. It requires a strong cast to translate it into something meaningful. This Next to Normal has that strong cast.
Kathryn Akin creates a nuanced and balanced (if I can say that) Diana. Ms. Akin never allows herself to revel in what could easily become a manic performance. Instead, she finds the perfect moments to let loose and the moments to reign it in. Her voice has a touch of Alice Ripley to it, and if the sound isn’t always beautiful (though it usually is), it never loses an emotional connection.
Likewise, Jay Davis’s Dan is a wonderful mix of restraint and passion. Dan is a challenging character who could easily become unlikeable, but Mr. Davis has crafted a sympathetic man that we can really feel for as he struggles with his wife’s condition. He seemed to have a problem here and there with some lines, and his voice didn’t always seem to be working the way he wanted it, but his reprise of “I am the one” towards the show’s end was utterly shattering and left me with chills.
Sara Farb as Natalie and James Daly as Gabe both shine in this production. Ms. Farb has created a complex character, not one that merely wallows in self-pity. And if Mr. Daly’s Gabe comes across a bit one dimensional, I blame the writing and not him. Both these young actors have outstanding voices and easily fill the space unamplified.
I was worried going in that there would be severe sound balance issues
Andre Morin (Henry) and Adrian Marchuk (Dr.Madden/Dr. Fine) round out the solid company with skill. Henry, with his youthful innocence, is a character I love, and my heart nearly broke as he naïvely promised Natalie he would be “perfect” for her. Mr. Marchuk has a powerful, piercing voice, every note coming out as easily as speaking, and his psychologist is a study in medical detachment.
I was worried going in that there would be severe sound balance issues, considering that the cast is unamplified (and especially how close we were to the band), but music director and drummer Robert Pittman has made sure this is not the case. There were maybe a handful of moments were I had a hard time hearing dialogue, but never so bad as to be completely inaudible. In fact, there were several moments in the music I’d never picked out before while listening to the soundtrack.
The design by Rachel Forbes is simple; primarily it’s a kitchen table and some chairs which, depending on the context, become an office desk, a gurney, and even a piano in a rather creative fashion. Liz Maraston’s lighting is perhaps a little severe for my taste, with sharp spots on certain scenes. I suspect the resources of the backspace at Tarragon are limited, and this was perhaps the only downside of the evening.
People familiar with the original production of Next to Normal will find new things to appreciate here, and newcomers to the material are in for an intense, but fantastic experience. I took a friend who was unfamiliar with the show and who has struggled with depression and medication himself. “The facts,” he said of the diagnosis process as depicted in the show, “are not all quite right. But it cuts to the emotional core of the experience.” For me, this is what theatre is all about—creating fictional scenarios in order to delve into the deeper truths of our lives. This Next to Normal has done this astonishingly well.