NEXT TO NORMAL music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey (Clearwater). At the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). To June 17. $12-$25. 416-531-1827. See listing. Rating: NNNN
At the helm of this Broadway musical about a modern family’s struggle with mental illness, up-and-coming director Kate Stevenson shows you don’t have to go big to make a big impact. Instead of large production numbers and flashy sets, she focuses on subtle yet evocative staging, and lets strong vocal performances speak for themselves. The result is an intimate and immediately relatable production that makes it easy to see why the show won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010.
The well-crafted story follows Diana (Kathryn Akin), a suburban housewife who remains obsessed with a tragedy that occurred years earlier. Her husband, Dan (Jay Davis), and teenaged daughter, Natalie (Sara Farb), become increasingly troubled by her erratic and delusional behaviour, while side effects from her medical treatments only make matters worse.
The show powerfully demonstrates that mental illness is not limited to sufferers, but affects everyone around them. Dan becomes frustrated by the unending loop of Diana’s relapses and treatment, while a cute subplot shows how Diana’s problems threaten Natalie’s high school romance with all-round nice-guy Henry (Andre Morin).
Vocal performances drenched in believable anguish are uniformly strong (especially Davis’s and Farb’s). Tom Kitt’s score is uptempo and rock-inflected, and Brian Yorkey’s clever lyrics provide sarcastic comedic touches that help to lighten the otherwise dark material.
Tying everything together is Stevenson’s smooth and steady direction, which is most powerful when actions between Diane and Dan are physically mirrored but recontextualized by Natalie and Henry in the background.