Next to Normal

057 Brendan Hanson, James Bell, Joel Horwood, Rachael Beck, Shannen Alyce. Next to Normal. Image by Gary Marsh To describe the show Next to Normal as a musical about a family would be like describing Black Swan as a dance movie, or an Arrested Development episode as cheery family satire: technically correct, and useful if you're looking for just a snapchat-caption summary, but for any other purpose hopelessly far from the dysfunction, drama and complexity actually at play. So, to preface: Next to Normal sure is a musical (that squares itself firmly in that territory with a clear disdain for anything more than a single line of spoken dialogue), and it's definitely just about a family's dynamics - but don't make your call either way on it just from hearing that, because it doesn't even come close to covering what's actually going on.

Next to Normal is the last show in Black Swan's 2015 season (that's our theatre company, not the more-than-a-dance-movie I mentioned before). The company calls the show a 'rock musical', which goes partway to describing the production - it's theatrical, it's epic, it's got those beefy, stirring choruses that are so effective at tugging on yo' heartstrings - but again, the addition of the adjective 'rock' to the word 'musical' does nothing to hint at the fact that as well as being a frothy musical, it's an interrogative, intelligent piece about mental illness.

155 Brendan Hanson, Rachael Beck. Next to Normal. Image by Gary Marsh

(The correct response here could be a sarcastic "Wow, that sounds like a great night out" - but doesn't it? When the musical ran on Broadway critic Ben Brantley from The New York Times wrote that it was more than a feel-good musical; it was a "feel-everything musical" - which is always my preference, even if it's caused me to feel so angry at certain Arrested Development episodes I've had to hit pause to cool off).

Black Swan's production is a faithful adaptation of the original, which debuted off-Broadway in 2008 to ridiculously good reviews. You can't fault director Adam Mitchell for that; nor can you critique him for making full, full use of that revolving stage in the Heath Ledger Theatre - it's the kind of theatrical touch Adam promised earlier this year, when he told Perth Guide he intended to use more abstract staging to take audience members into the mind of the show's protagonist, Diana. It's showy and spectacular, and makes Diana's and her family's struggle all the more engaging for being flashy and entertaining - but I couldn't help but wonder about the same show in the smaller Studio Underground space (imagine the emotional intensity of this year's Venus in Furbut with a few sassy show tunes, too).

The friend I took with me - who, like me, is very familiar with exploring her own neuroses - did remark that the show hit "a little too close to home", though - so maybe the distance and the grandeur worked to get us thinking, but not totally lose ourselves in our own minds.

But then, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Staying light on details to avoid giving away the ending, I'll tell you that we definitely go on a journey with Diana, and it's valleys and mountain peaks, not just a vague metaphorical journey - there are pill bottles and electric shock therapy, family brawls, hallucinations, confused young love and a frantic sandwich-making session on the kitchen floor  - and the show's interval is a welcome breather. The entire cast does really well with what they're given, with a special mention here to Shannen Alyce, who plays daughter Natalie with warmth, gravitas and beautiful teenage frailty, and Rachael Beck as Diana - think Portia de Rossi's Lindsay in the show I've just outed as my favourite sitcom, but with a brittle, brilliant mania to contrast the deadpan sarcasm.

006 Shannen Alyce, Brendan Hanson, Rachael Beck, James Bell. Next to Normal. Image by Gary Marsh

Beyond an under-miked Brendan Hanson, the show's tech is excellent. It's beautifully lit by Trent Suidgeest (who clearly got the brief to turn things up a notch). There's a six-piece band, lead by music director David Young on keys, pounding away at those big Broadway tunes. Was there a single missed note? I didn't notice, and to be honest, I couldn't have cared less - especially not during the final tune, Light. If you're a musical fan, you'll find it, and the whole show, challenging and gaudy and dang soul-affirming in the very best Broadway tradition. If you're not, you probably left at interval anyway. But remember, anyway: it's not just a musical.

Next to Normal plays at the the State Theatre Centre until 22 November. Tickets from the Black Swan State Theatre Company website.

By Sophie Raynor

All photos by Gary Marsh