Review: Next to Normal (Lower Ossington Theatre)

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Toronto’s Lower Ossington Theatre presents Next to Normal; a rock musical about mental illness

Next to Normal is a compelling drama about one family’s struggle with mental illness; a scathing critique of psychopharmacology and the pharmaceutical industry. Overall, it’s also a big, bold rock musical. This gripping, intelligent and emotional show won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is easily one of my favourite musicals of the past ten years.

The Lower Ossington Theatre (LOT) opens its new season with a new production of Next to Normal and, fittingly for a show that explores the effects of mental illness, part of the proceeds from the show are being donated to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) whose main campus is located just a stone’s throw away from the Lower Ossington Theatre.

Going in to the show I admit I was very skeptical as to whether or not the Lower Ossington Theatre could actually pull off a show like Next to Normal. The company is mostly known for its productions of light, popular Broadway shows.

Sure, the LOT does a production of The Rocky Horror Show every Halloween, they’ve tackled Legally Blonde, perpetually remount their production of Avenue Q and their current season also features Shrek: The Musical but does the company have the chops for an intense, hard-hitting Pulitzer Prize-winning drama like Next to Normal?

Well, yes and no. I don’t think this production entirely hits the mark but I was pleasantly surprised by some aspects of it.

The Lower Ossington Theatre often casts semi-professional actors who are in the early-stages of their career for their productions. A quick perusal of the programme confirms that the cast members are all recent grads with few professional credits and the relative youth of the cast lends a bit of an unfortunate college-production feel to the to the show.

I found it particularly distracting that the adult characters in the show are cast with actors who are about two decades too young for their roles and while they act their theatre school-trained hearts out, I still found the performances generally lacking in depth and maturity.

Kylie McMahon takes on the incredibly difficult role of Diana Goodman; a suburban housewife suffering from bi-polar disorder and delusional episodes. McMahon makes a valiant effort but I don’t think she quite succeeds at channeling the depth and nuance the character needs to succeed. For example, she quickly tosses aside much of the humour in Diana’s lines that are supposed to endear the character to the audience.

Likewise, I thought Mark Willett was just too young to convincingly channel the full depth of the exasperation Diana’s husband Dan feels after years of being her caregiver.

The actors cast in the teen roles fare better. Jacqueline Martin is sympathetic in her portrayal of Diana’s angst-ridden daughter Natalie and Graham Fleming is appropriately charming as older son Gabe but could play up the character’s evil, seductive quality a bit more.

For the most part the show sounds great. The cast definitely has the vocal chops for the belty rock score. They’re backed by a live band playing the full arrangement of composer Tom Kitt’s score. However, occasional issues with the balance of the sound mix as well as the hurried delivery of some lines made the dialogue hard to hear at times.

Michael Galloro’s set design references the look of the multi-tiered, arena rock concert-style set from the Broadway production. The set is visually striking and fills the performance space nicely.

Director Heather Braaten adds her own signature to the production, incorporating some interesting choices for staging and character interaction. Smartly, she doesn’t attempt a straight copy of the Broadway production of the show. I also liked the movement design, even if the ensemble’s execution of it is a little stiff at times.

Despite the issues with the casting, the power and strength of both the script and score shine through and there are several aspects of the production that I enjoyed.

Details:

Photo of David Moote, Mark Willett, Kylie McMahon, Graham Fleming, Colin Jones and Jacqueline Martin by Seanna Kennedy

3 thoughts on “Review: Next to Normal (Lower Ossington Theatre)”

  1. Do not see this show. Casting the roles of long-married parents with mid-20’s-something actors is an egregious error and disrespectful to the story. Diana and Dan MUST be cast with actors of suitable age & experience. MUST MUST MUST!
    How dare this theatre and the producers of this show so blatantly mis-cast this show, and then charge $49 – $59 per ticket. I hope anyone who saw this show at least saw either of the two recent productions at the Tarragon Theatre starring Kathryn Akin. Ten times the show, at half the cost, with professional actors being paid professional rates. The LOT does not hire professionals, yet charges twice as much. If you haven’t seen Next To Normal, it is a terrific musical, but save your money and wait for a better production.

  2. I hope you realize Trevor that supporting young aspiring actors and artists is never a bad idea. The inflated ticket cost is most likely a result of proceeds going towards CAMH…..I think forgoing the fine print, may have clouded your expectations on this one.

  3. After seeing the show myself, I agree with the review. I feel the show overall was much stronger than is conveyed here but the same issues did appear during our performance (a few mixing issues over dialogue and the dynamic between the “teenagers” was much stronger than the one between the adults) but this is one of the strongest shows I’ve seen the LOT produce. As you stated the singing, band and stage design were great and I also found the lights to be amazingly done.

    Trevor, there are a plethora of 50% off tickets available through groupon and other discount ticket sights (which is where we got ours from) as well as a limited amount of $5 tickets on hiptix.

    The 20 something actors playing parents didn’t bug me in the least, I would imagine if you have certain expectations of that casting than it would, but I still found the show to be very well done and enjoyable.

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