Music Theatre

Next to Normal review [Melbourne 2022]

The crackling electricity of rock musical Next to Normal lights up Chapel off Chapel in a deeply affecting production, centred upon the exquisite lead performance of Queenie van de Zandt.

Another week of 2022 and another “third time lucky” show finally makes it to the stage. The inspiration for the determined persistence of James Terry Collective in bringing Next to Normal to a full season is clearly seen and felt in the blazing quality of the emotionally charged production. 

In a quirk of programming, Next to Normal follows If/Then, creating an unintentional mini-festival of the work of composer Tom Kitt and lyricist and book writer Brian Yorkey. The family drama of Next to Normal can be viewed as a pre-cursor to Jagged Little Pill (2019), the striking difference being that ten years earlier there was no compulsion to include myriad aspects of diversity.

Confidently staged, making exceptional use of the tight space at Chapel off Chapel, 2009 Broadway musical Next to Normal benefits immensely from the intimacy of the surroundings. Mark Taylor’s meticulous direction favours honest realism, with the sharp ensemble cast of six crafting believable, emotionally available characters. Authentic connections are readily formed between performers and audience, significantly heightening the impact of the drama.

Set designer Dann Barber solves Chapel off Chapel’s inherent sightline issues with a platform stage, just high enough for the cast to be easily seen over the heads of the front rows. The intricate design features an architectural blueprint of the home, brought into 3D by a crisp white light outline. With lighting design by Jason Bovaird, the flexible space ably supports the cinematic flow of Yorkey’s book, with Taylor neatly staging simultaneous scenes and focusing audience attention in swift jump cuts. 

Costume designer Jodi Hope complements the realism with an impressively extensive array of outfits for each character. Hope also shines in heightened moments, such as Diana’s visions of her second doctor as a rock star and the ingenious effect of glowing lights beneath Diana’s gown during her ECT sessions. 

On keyboard, musical director Nathan Firmin leads six fellow musicians in a crisply detailed performance of the richly textured music. Kitt’s treasure trove of a score is studded with individual gems, each heard at their best, both instrumentally and vocally, under Firmin’s guidance. The finishing touch is the pristine balance of the sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco. 

One of Australian musical theatre’s most gifted singers, Van de Zandt gives a masterclass in acting through song, bringing tender, heartfelt expression to every word. Van de Zandt’s immersion in the role is so thorough that there is no sense of acting, Diana is just there before our eyes. Vocally, van de Zandt really wins the audience over with the close pair of contrasting act one ballads, moving nimbly from the gentle folksy style of “I Miss The Mountains” to the rock arena belt of “You Don’t Know.” Van de Zandt balances rawness and sensitivity in portraying Diana’s mental illness, achieving particular success with conveying fundamental differences in Diana’s psyche as she moves through various phases of treatment. 

Returning to the role after some ten years, Matt Hetherington imbues Diana’s loyal husband Dan with an affecting blend of devotion, bewilderment and compassion. Far from being outshone by van de Zandt’s work in the much showier role, Hetherington draws audience attention and affection in a finely calibrated, completely understated performance, the success of which bears fruit in the deeply moving final scene. 

Recent graduate Sam Richardson makes an auspicious professional debut, bringing resounding passion to Diana and Dan’s perennially frustrated son, Gabe. Act one rock ballad “I’m Alive” is a blazing highlight for Richardson, who proves equally adept at gentler vocal moments. 

Completing the Goodman family, Melanie Bird shines as struggling daughter Natalie, taking the character on an equally compelling journey from uptight to outspoken as she samples drugs to ease the pain of her own potential battle with mental illness.

As friendly neighbourhood “stoner” Henry, Hanlon Innocent neatly sidesteps any stereotypes with a rounded, compassionate characterisation. Hanlon enjoys solid chemistry with Bird, with the pair handling the histrionics of their roles with well-judged energy so as to keep the story well grounded. 

In dual doctor roles, Ross Chisari differentiates Dr Fine with a fey, fastidious manner before moving on to rock star Dr Madden, in which Chisari shows the humanistic chinks in an otherwise stoic man of science. 

Playing for a mere eight days, Melbourne musical theatre lovers are urged to see Next to Normal

Next to Normal plays at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne until 27 March 2022. For tickets, click here.

Photos: James Terry

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