Next To Normal gets a non-traditionally cast production that can’t compensate for its flaws

NEXT TO NORMAL by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Mirvish/Musical Stage Co). At the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge). Runs to.

NEXT TO NORMAL by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (Mirvish/Musical Stage Co). At the CAA Theatre (651 Yonge). Runs to May 19. $60-$110. 416-872-1212. See listing. Rating: NN

Musicals like Fun Home and the recently opened Dear Evan Hansen prove that this genre can tackle even the most serious subjects. Both shows are clearly indebted to Next To Normal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical thats getting an intriguing, if not entirely successful, revival by Musical Stage Company in the off-Mirvish season.

Suburban housewife Diana (Ma-Anne Dionisio) is a wife and mother whos been living with bipolar disorder for about a decade and a half ever since she survived a trauma. Her family has dealt with her extreme ups and downs in their own way: husband Dan (Troy Adams) is concerned, patient and accommodating over-achieving daughter, Natalie (Stephanie Sy), feels ignored and son Gabe (Brandon Antonio) indulges his mom.

Meanwhile, Diana, helped by a series of doctors (played by Louise Pitre) is trying to find the right combination of meds and therapy to help her feel more like herself.

The novelty of this production, directed by Philip Akin, is the non-traditional casting. The role of Doctor Madden, usually played by a man, is taken by Pitre, who nevertheless lives up to the description of the character in the script: On the young side of ageless. Assured. A rock star.

More importantly, Diana and her children are played by Asian-Canadian actors (Dionisio premiered the title role in the Canadian production of Miss Saigon). This sheds light on the cultural pressures often put on Asians to succeed and not complain Im sure Im not the only Asian kid who, like Stephanie, was forced to practice my Mozart.

Unfortunately, this production doesnt offer much else thats very interesting. Apart from its insights into how mental illness affects a patients entire family, Brian Yorkeys weak book feels underdeveloped, and the shows timeline can feel confusing. And the songs, with music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Yorkey, are often on the nose in their obviousness.

Worse, one plot point seems like an annoying, gimmicky contrivance rather than an integral part of the show. And you can sense near the end that Yorkeys written himself into a corner he doesnt know how to end the thing.

The actors are mostly fine. Dionisio demonstrates a range of emotional and vocal depth as the show progresses, and Sy is endlessly watchable as the caretaking daughter who chooses to act out. Nathan Carroll has a sweet voice and easy amiability as Natalies stoner boyfriend, Henry. Antonio has a graceful, spontaneous presence as Gabe. And Pitre has the pipes and presence (not to mention the firmest biceps of any actor this stage season) to sell any line.

But Adams seems curiously blank and bland as Dan.

Steve Lucass ugly set consists of a spiral staircase and several panels of wood at the sides and some opaque screens in the back. Yet through all this, you can occasionally see stagehands moving things around.

A cast members illness cut short the productions preview period. Im not sure if the set and staging issues could have been solved with more rehearsal time.


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