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REVIEW: Next to Normal at ARA Darling Quarter Theatre

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Review by Michelle Sutton

Whimsical Productions presents the Tony award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next To Normal at ARA Darling Quarter Theatre. The musical Next To Normal written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt debuted on Broadway in 2009. The show depicts themes of mental illness and family dysfunction and offers a bold, interesting and nuances commentary on psychiatry, the mental health system, grief and relationships. Despite this there are also moments of levity and brightness.

Musical Director Gianna Cheung and assistant musical director Rosanna Lam do an impressive job with a small but faultless orchestra positioned side of stage that do the score of the rock-musical justice. Co-directors Eezu Tan and Marie-Jo Orbase have done well bringing the material to life. Production designer Adelaide Tustian has turned the stage into an average suburban household with dining room, laundry, kitchen, living room all somehow represented in the same space. The space looks lived in, intimate and immediately recognisable. Dom Hort's lighting design is fresh and fun with bright colours and designs used to highlight feelings and fluctuating states of distress and consciousness, offering an additional window into the characters' journeys.

Claire Perry inhabits the central role of Diana beautifully. There is a sense of vulnerability, feeling lost and desperately searching that Perry brings to life. It is a dramatic role that Perry approaches with care, tenderness and a sense of humour. Sebastian Nelson imbues Diana’s husband Dan with many layers of emotions that are slowly illuminated throughout the course of the show. Jacen Bennett has a challenging role that he interprets interestingly and portrays powerfully. Chaya Ocampo plays Natalie, Diana’s 16 year old daughter who is often forgotten and unsure of her identity and role in the family. Ocampo’s characterisation of a teenager is spot on with flashes of rage, fear, anxiety and longing all melded into one. Ocampo’s vocals are also along the most consistent in the show and beautiful when harmonising with others in duets. Liam Faulkner-Dimond is charismatic as Henry, creating a multi-dimensional, fleshed out character with heart that in another performer’s hands could’ve remained a mere love interest on the periphery of the story. Lighter scenes involving Faulker-Dimond and Ocampo's developing relationship sparkle with chemistry, teenage vulnerability, and softness. Marcus Rivera as the dual roles of Dr Fine and Dr Madden is a standout both in comedic timeout and flair and in his professional and effortless performance and command of the stage. Both Rivera's technically flawless voice and stage presence ground the show. The entire cast is extremely talented and shine when they can bounce off of each other in playful group numbers. There is some inconsistency with accents in spoken dialogue and singing which detracts somewhat from the world-building of the show, but that is a small detail in an overall fantastic show.

Next to Normal although clearly developed and firmly set in suburban late-noughties America maintains a lot of its relevance with an Australian 2023 audience. The questions asked through song about medication and modern mental health treatments are still strikingly honest today and the exploration of grief, depression and the complexity of family relationships is rich. Whimsical Productions Next to Normal is not a perfectly polished show but is bursting full of heart, enthusiasm and commitment from the cast and crew and well worth a watch.

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