Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Something Next to Normal

A word of warning for starters: written in white text, there are major spoilers for Next to Normal in this review. In my opinion, they will ruin your experience if you don't know the plot of the show. So, please, only highlight the invisible part if you have seen Next to Normal already. (Also, if you ask me, avoid reading the reviews in newspapers. The same spoiler appears there with no warnings.) Other than the white part, this should be safe to read.

Next to Normal is one of the musicals I can't decide whether to call my favourite or not.

In a way, Next to Normal is one of the best musicals of the recent years. With so many jukebox musicals and adaptations nowadays, it's very refreshing to see an original story. It's not an easy one, either: it's about a family struggling with mental ilness. A very interesting subject for a musical, I think.

Yet, I'm afraid every repeat viewing has further opened my eyes to see the weaknesses of the piece. I'm rather annoyed at its black-and-white view about whether to treat mental illnesses with medical science or therapy. The show definitely takes a side, and I think it tries to shove its opinions down our throats a bit too forcibly. Next to Normal also has a rather weak second act. The combination of the songs being less interesting and the action slowing down near the end is sure to make me yawn every time.

Still, I admire Next to Normal for its music (I can't stop looping the songs from the first act), and for telling a touching story with realistic, layered characters, especially the leading couple. It's not often you get all that in a single show. No wonder both Wasa Teater and Tampereen Työväen Teatteri stage Next this fall!

When it comes to the Wasa Teater version I just saw, my expectations were through the roof. Starring three people from my favourite musical cast of all times and, judging by photos and videos beforehand, looking visually so much better than the recent Helsingin kaupunginteatteri version... I was looking forward seeing a great production. And, for the most part, I got one.

Anna-Maria Hallgarn and Sören Lillkung made the two main roles feel very realistic and genuine (interesting that the male lead got the final bow at the curtain call, by the way – but with such a voice and performance, who am I to argue?). Furthermore, I don't think there was a single weak link in the remaining cast, composed of Johan Aspelin, Samuel Harjanne, Markus Lytts and Mikaela Tidermark. Add this one to the long list of Finnish productions I wish they would record a cast album of!

For the most part, I also enjoyed Victoria Brattström's directional choices. I think she seemed to have a very clear view of the story she's telling and the dynamics in between the characters. For example, the character of Natalie, who I found rather annoying in HKT, felt compelling and real to me here.

There's one very big but about me liking the direction, though, and here come the spoilers. Only highlight the following empty-looking space if you've seen some production of Next to Normal.

I didn't like what Wasa Teater's production did with the character of Gabe. 

I think Gabe's one of the most interesting musical theatre characters out there. It's intriguing how we don't really know what he is. A ghost? Diana's illusion? A physical manifestation of the whole family's suffering? All of these at once? It's up to each director, actor and member of the audience to find their own interpretation. However, not everyone has to agree with every idea, and I didn't agree with the director's here...

From the beginning on, Gabe felt rather unreal. If WT's Next was your first time seeing the show, let me know: did you suspect something was awry even before the truth was revealed? I thought that everything from Gabe's simple black clothing on hammered it in that he's different, and his discussions with his mother seemed like two adults speaking. Of course, it can be asked if the it's even important keeping the fact that Gabe isn't real concealed – but personally, I like it better when he seems like a real teenager.

The other thing I didn't like was the lack of physicality in Gabe. After seeing Tuukka Leppänen perform the role in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's production, with all that movement, jumping and running, aggression... This Gabe seemed very meek in comparison. HKT's Gabe kept looming in the background even when he didn't have a part in the scene, as a reminder that he's still there in Diana's mind. WT's Gabe kept disappearing. He didn't feel like a true threat to Diana at any point. Also, without any physical contact, his duet with his dad at the end felt rather empty. 

To me, Gabe is the main conflict keeping the show together, so it's a shame the character doesn't feel more interesting here. As far as the direction allowed him, though, Markus Lytts gave a good performance in the disappointing role. His I'm Alive/Jag är här is truely worth hearing. With different direction, I'm certain he would shine even brighter.

Enough of the negativity, since this is after all the better of the two Next to Normals I've seen so far...

One thing I liked was how the family seemed like people any of us could know. I think that's how the show's supposed to be like, that these events could happen to any family the audience knows. The decision to translate the family's name helped a lot. In retrospect, I think HKT's (and it seems, TTT's too) decision to keep the American names in the Finnish translation was rather alienating. The story felt lot more natural and hit closer to home when we were watching the Fennoswedish family Sundqvist that could just as well live next door to the theatre.

What's more, the little moments in between the characters felt very natural to me.
The moment in the beginning when Dan helps Diana to fix the salad and toast blew me away by taking the time it needed, by being so darn real. Other lovely little moments include the whole It's Gonna Be Good/Nu ska det bli bra scene with the hilarious cast interactions, and Natalie and Henry (or Henrik, he's been turned into a local too) playing snippets by the composers they mention during their banter in the first act. Kudos to Mikaela Tidermark for playing the piano herself!

All in all, even with the script's annoying bits and even with the choices I didn't agree with, I think Wasa Teater's Next to Normal is well worth seeing. The cast is talented and feels like a real family, and I wonder if the songs have ever sounded better. I'm considering taking another look at this before it closes in December.

Photos by Frank A. Unger.
Related: my thoughts about WT Next to Normal's cast before seeing the show.

See the opening scene from the show.

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