It’s a rare and precious thing when an audience at a live show can’t even bring themselves to clap. People sitting in rapt attention and refusing to disrupt the what’s unfolding before them is a very good sign. Terrible productions always get tepid obligatory applause at regular intervals. Terrific ones paralyze.
All this to say, if you found yourself overwhelmed partway through Act One of Contact Theatre’s chilling production of Next To Normal, trust that you were not alone. The Pulitzer Prize-winning piece has packed a serious punch since it first debuted on Broadway in 2009, but this new production brought audiences even deeper into the drama thanks to the sensitive direction of Debora Friedmann, who also choreographed the piece.
Friedman and co-founder Ally Brumer, whose company is focused on staging musicals that “grapple with heavy moral issues and question the status quo”, have taken on one of the all-time heavyweights and proven they’re more than up to the challenge. The plot of Normal follows a suburban mother whose struggles with depression and the medical system reach a breaking point.
As uncomfortable a narrative as that may seem, Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are overflowing with the kind of honesty and humor that make the exploration of such deep wounds extremely cathartic. Tom Kitt’s Tony-winning rock score, meanwhile, carries you through all of Diana’s ups and downs with soulful energy, especially when performed by a band as talented as this six-person group, under the guidance of gifted Musical Director/Pianist Giancarlo Scalia. It was worth the price of admission for the concert alone, but thankfully this production had much more to offer.
Making clever use of every inch of Studio Hydro-Quebec at Monument National, the creative team gave Diana’s family both the framework of a two-story home in which to grapple with their emotional problems and a large abstract space just beyond its walls, where all bets were off. The audience surrounded this area, getting an up-close-and-personal view of the performers.
Scenic Designer Nikki Mabias Melchor capitalized on this intimacy through the use of a platform that unmoored from the house and served as both a prison and an escape for the struggling heroine. As Diana dealt with therapy sessions or found herself literally torn between her husband and son, Friedmann – with assistance from lighting designer Christopher Wardell – used this cage to create a sense of movement and chaos, as well as some striking visual tableaus. It’s clear an abundance of thought was put into the staging of this production and the end results spoke for themselves.
The cast of amateur talent, meanwhile, cast serious doubt on the fairness of the term “amateur”. There were some truly great vocalists here, beginning with McGill law student Hannah Lazare (Natalie) and Dawson College theatre graduate Jake Cohen (Henry).
Between Normal and Carrie over at Mainline Theatre, Montreal stages seem to have had quite a few compelling young couples entertaining us lately. This duo’s acting chops helped flesh out Natalie’s journey as the daughter of a severely ill woman who is unable to relate to her.
Those familiar with Normal surely appreciated this production’s emphasis on the parallels between Natalie and Henry’s burgeoning romance and that of Diana and Dan, which has frayed to the point of breaking.
As the loyal and helpless husband, Joel Bernstein brought serious pipes and an impressive beard to his portrayal of Dan, who tries to keep his wife’s illness from swallowing them all up. Anyone who has had to watch from the sidelines as a loved one deteriorates could relate to his frustration and determination, which Bernstein delivered with conviction.
Lisa McCormack decidedly had some of the most challenging scenes in the piece, having to play multiple emotions at once while singing a score that proved daunting even for Broadway icon Alice Ripley. She managed well enough and connected in the big moments where it counted most, but – like Diana – was bolstered considerably by the strengths of those around her.
McGill graduate Cathal Rynne, for instance, almost singlehandedly fueled the piece as Diana’s confrontational son Gabe with his powerful belt and deceptively appealing nature. Rounding out the cast was Daniel Wilkenfeld as the various Doctors attempting to help Diana. His comedic flair and confident voice brought a lot to the party, even when his characters warned that “at times, it does hurt to be healed.”
After having their production of Chicago abruptly cancelled by the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic, Contact Theatre has bounced back beautifully with a show that’s sure to linger the hearts and minds of those lucky enough to have seen it.
Alas, Next To Normal only ran for one week, wrapping up its final performance yesterday evening. It truly deserved a longer run and has certainly proven that there’s an abundance of talent within Montreal’s English-language musical theatre scene, even when there’s sometimes a lack of financial support.
Perhaps it’s time for us all to make a little bit more noise – if not during a captivating performance, then afterwards, once the goosebumps have subsided – so that a company as capable as Contact can get the funding they require to reach as many live entertainment-starved Montrealers as possible. In these challenging times, good art can truly be the best medicine.
Images courtesy of Contact Theatre