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Friday 16 September 2011

Next to Normal (Revisited)

Technically, I’ve managed to disqualify myself from writing a review of the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Next to Normal (which I previously wrote about here).  

Photo by David Cooper
Caitriona Murphy, the actress and music therapist who plays Diana, the show’s lead, is a friend of a friend and consulted me about the presentation and style of people with bipolar disorder. From there I was asked to meet with another cast member to answer a few questions about his role, and to offer the pre-show “coffee chat” for the afternoon performance on Sunday September 18.

If PsychologySalon was a newspaper, this would immediately place me in a conflict of interest and I would not be considered objective enough to write a review.

Thankfully, this isn’t a newspaper.

To be honest, I felt that my involvement, miniscule (and ultimately unnecessary) though it might be, was a welcome dodge. If I was less than impressed with the production, I would be able to keep my mouth shut. “Sorry,” I’d say.  “I was involved. Professional ethics and all. Can’t offer an opinion.”

The New York production I saw in spring 2010, was the culmination of over 10 years of work by the authors, from a 10-minute workshop piece to a full-scale 2009 Broadway debut featuring actors who had been with the piece through several incarnations of the show and with the input of the original writers.

The Arts Club production, by contrast, features people who had never seen that show, had never met the writers, and had only a few weeks to rehearse the piece before appearing onstage at the Stanley Theatre. How could it expect to be anything more than a faint echo of the Broadway version?

Answer: This production does extremely well, and I think it is comparable to the New York production. Caitriona is excellent in the lead role and portrays the confusion, anger, and resolve of a woman with severe mental illness with conviction and a great singing voice. At the end of the show on opening night last night, much of the audience remained in their seats until she appeared onstage – not, it seemed, because the other cast members were not terrific (they were) but in order to give her her due by standing when she appeared.

The show starts a bit light, lulling the audience into a false sense of security, then takes a steep dive into serious depths in the second half of the first act. People in the lobby at the break seemed uncertain where the play was going to go next – back to the lighter tone or deeper into the drama of the situation.

I wondered too. Would the Arts Club, conscious of the Vancouver public’s seemingly endless thirst for light diversions, shy away and underplay the drama of the second act? No, it turns out. One potential fault of the piece is that it offers the potential to play at full intensity from curtain to close, becoming a bit numbing in the process. Director Bill Millerd’s gradually increasing gravity works well at drawing the audience deeper in, rather than defensively pulling back.

My one problem with the New York production was a neon-lit chrome set that looked like they got it second hand from the 1980s’ Solid Gold Dancers (you can see it in a few YouTube clips). Ted Roberts at the Arts Club has come up with a somewhat more naturalistic set that results in rapid scene changes and suggests a real family home. It works better than the New York version.

So any concern I felt about recommending a show I hadn’t seen has now passed. This is a great piece of theatre, a deserving Pulitzer Prize winner, and is given a terrific production by the Arts Club with an extremely talented cast. It’s well worth seeing.

Update:  On Sunday September 18 I did the pre-show "coffee talk" for the Sunday matinee and stayed to see the show.  Everyone has settled into their roles even more, and I now think that the production rivals the New York production and surpasses it in several respects.  Caitriona is remarkable as Diana and Matt Palmer does a great job with the two clinicians.  Everyone else in the cast is very strong as well, and Warren Kimmel does brilliantly as the husband in a role that otherwise would run the risk of being eclipsed by Diana's story.  I don't think you'll see a stronger production of this piece.

For tickets and information, go to

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