Next to Normal is not a typical Broadway show with a fairy tale ending. In this contemporary musical and winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a suburban household copes with crisis and the unpredictability of a mother’s worsening bipolar disorder. Cardinal Music Productions is currently tackling the emotionally touching story with extreme tact and grace for a short run at the Urban Field House in Emeryville.
As someone who appreciates a good happy ending and joyful songs, emotional shows like Next to Normal can be a tough dose of reality, especially when they’re done with the care and dignity Cardinal’s team provide.
The strong cast was not only capable of acting out the story with thoughtfulness, but they also had an incredible sense of song. The music is one of the aspects that makes Next to Normal the award-winning musical it is. The four-time Tony winner actually received three different awards for its music and sound alone, which audiences quickly discover once the show begins. With about 40 musical numbers and reprises, Next to Normal is mostly told through song and performance.
Traumatized by the death of her infant son from an undiagnosed intestinal obstruction, Diana Goodman has lived with bipolar depressive disorder and delusional episodes for the past seventeen years. The illness has affected everyone in her life, and has nearly torn her family apart on several occasions. It tackles contemporary issues of trauma, loss, mental health treatment, and the meaning of family in a delicate manner that is emotionally draining and simply entertaining.
Cardinal’s small ensemble cast was more than capable of this show. Lindsay Norris (Diana), Joe Cardinal (Dan), Regan White (Natalie), Drew Beaudoin (Gabe), Nick Palazzolo (Henry), Sydney White (Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden) and Jen Gurniack (Diana’s body double) are a great team for such a tender subject.
Norris was the perfect choice for Diana. Her voice was captivating and she really looked like a super fun and caring mom of two kids when the show started. As things progressed, Norris handled the illness and bipolar moments tactfully and respectfully. If done incorrectly, the humour and quirks of Diana’s actions could be taken the wrong way. In fact, that’s the danger of doing a show like this altogether. There’s some pretty tense drama and discussions of illness in the show and when mixed with upbeat musical numbers like “Who’s Crazy – My Psychopharmacologist and I” and “It’s Gonna Be Good”. The Cardinal crew obviously went through the show with a fine-tooth comb, because it didn’t feel forced or uncomfortable.
Cardinal was a strong choice as caring husband Dan. Diana puts him through an emotional roller coaster, but he’s patient and loving throughout, with the exception of their separation. Rather than fight for her he becomes depressed and stuck in his own rut.
Regan White was adorable as the rebellious teen Natalie. She was so full of angst and anger that it balanced the erratic tendencies of the rest of the family. White’s voice was on the money and perfect for the young rebel.
Beaudoin rocked it as Gabe. His performance of I’m Alive was fabulous. It’s the defining moment in the early part of the show and he nailed it with a ghostly charm.
Palazzolo was a great match for Regan – the two of them had an on-stage chemistry that should be explored in a future play.
Sydney White is still one of my favourite actors in Windsor. Over the past two years her roles have matured, her performances are greatly improved and her singing voice is still strong and clean. As the doctors in Next to Normal, she was sexy, mischievous and a little evil all at the same time. She gave the role a lot more effort than can be seen from other actors in a Google search for Dr. Fine or Dr. Madden. She even looked like she had fun during her rock star moments.
The stage was fairly simple, but the addition of a second tier was brilliant – it allowed the actors to enter the scenes more gracefully and it created a second podium for different conversations at the same time. The Urban Field House is also great venue for Cardinal with its high ceiling and decent acoustics – unlike E.J. Lajeunesse, the Urban Field House carried the sound consistently throughout the venue, balancing the sound perfectly no matter where you sit. Hopefully we’ll see more shows there in the future.
Next to Normal isn’t for everyone. It’s a tough subject matter sung to a modern pop-rock sound, but if a fairy-tale happy ending kinda guy like me enjoyed it, it’s definitely worth the trip to Emeryville.
Cardinal Music Productions presentation of Next to Normal continues Friday and Saturday night (Mar. 29 and 30), as well as a matinee on Sunday (Mar. 31). Tickets are $25. For more information visit http://www.cardinalmusicproductions.com.