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Pulitzer Prize winning musical Next to Normal by Vancouver Arts Club shines spotlight on bipolar disorder

A family's pain is examined in this beautifully sung musical.

Next to Normal is not for the faint of heart. Presented by the Vancouver Arts Club and running till October 9th on the Stanley Stage, it chronicles the vagaries of a family coping with mental illness employing music by Tom Kitt and the book and lyric by Brian Yorkey. Yes, it’s a musical and even won a the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, one of only eight musicals to have won the prestigious award.

The Arts Club does it justice with five excellent actors with memorable pipes musically directed beautifully by Bruce Kellett and Ken Cormier, accompanied by a stellar six piece band led by Cormier on keyboard. Set designer Ted Roberts, costume designer Sheila White and lighting designer Marsha Sibthorpe do a bang up job of creating the world of this nuclear family gone awry.

The psychological underpinnings of this family are close enough to many of our own to have had more than a few sniffles heard in the packed house on opening night.

Diana Goodman (Caitriona Murphy), the wife and mother, suffers from bi-polar disorder and manages to give the illusion of wellness often enough to keep her long suffering husband Dan (Warren Kimmel) something to hang on to. He remembers what they were and hopes for that intimacy and joy again. His loyalty and dogged steadfastness grounds the play.

Their daughter Natalie (Jennie Neumann) begins act one as the Type A achiever and evolves/devolves into a self medicated 17 year old whose relationship with Henry (Colin Sheen) parallels her parents but with a different outcome. Her journey resolves to potential for happiness but we all know how the genetic crap game of mental illness works.

Diana’s delusion revolves around a baby son that was tragically lost 16 years previously and now lives with her in ghostly need. Gabe (Eric Morin), a handsome young man, offers her the support and resolution to the event of his death while pulling her away from her daughter and husband.

Psychiatrists Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, both played by Matt Palmer, range from the ridiculous to the sublime and point to the inexactitude the medical profession has of dealing with issues of the brain.

A poignant scene between Dr. Fine and Dan questions  the validity of our right to call someone crazy  and whether anyone has the right to judge what is normal.

And that is the essence of Next to Normal. As we muddle along trying the best we can, sometimes there are casualties but we try to survive and offer those around us compassion and love.

Director Bill Millerd cast the show well and one hopes that the push of opening night settles down during the run. Truly an ensemble piece, they all play the acting moments while driving  the lyrics forward creating believable relationships and an evocative story.

Every single cast member has serious musical chops making the interplay and harmonies truly gorgeous. Interesting to hear a violin used as both a fiddle and, along with the cello, a string section , giving some of the music a folky, bluegrass feel reminiscent of the bluegrass musical Floyd Collins.

Next to Normal forges a new kind of musical that utilizes the non-stop singing of an opera with the psychologically minded viewpoint of an Oprah Show.  Not your usual night at a musical, this production serves the Pulitzer Prize winner well.

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