Next to Normal at The Citadel: More Extraordinary Than Normal

Last night, after a lot of anticipation, I went to Next to Normal at The Citadel.  It was their final night of previews (they open tonight - Thursday, October 25) and it was all I hoped it would be and maybe a bit more.  I am going to avoid giving too many details about the actual plot because I do not want to give away spoilers.  I think the show is good even if you know about it, but I imagine it is even more spectacular when you don't know all the details.

This is a ground-breaking Pulitzer Prize winning musical.  It is in no way traditional, being that it is about 95-99% sung and the music itself is rock influenced and incredibly challenging.  All six performers onstage handle the challenge of the vocals well.  None of them have an easy job, but they all seem to make it look that way. Robert Markus as the son, Gabe, is a stand-out vocally hitting unbelievable high note after high note with an ease that suggests he finds singing as easy as breathing. Kathryn Akin is also brilliant as the bi-polar mother, Diana, as she balances the vocals with an intense emotional journey filled with manic highs and darkest lows. If I had one issue with the music, it is only that on occasion the band is a little too loud and with the rapid fire lyrics that most of the audience is unfamiliar with, you have to really work hard to catch every word.  However, it was the last preview and they are likely still working on get that balance perfect.

The show is ground-breaking in other ways as it's topics of grief and mental-illness are not your typical fare for a musical.  However, once you see it, the linking makes perfect sense.  How better to demonstrate the challenges of having or living with someone with a mental illness than by using the heightened emotionality of music to support those roller-coaster emotions.  This cast is totally committed in both song and emotion.  Director Ron Jenkins has carefully balanced the character arcs with fast pacing and shifts in colour and light and position so that we ride the roller coaster with each of them.  Despite being warned to bring tissues, I was caught off-guard when I found myself crying during  Maybe (Next to Normal) sung beautifully and heart-breakingly by Diana and daughter Natalie (Sarah Farb).  The tears returned in a waterfall when this was followed by the reprise of I Am The One sung by dad Dan (Réjean Cournoyer) and Gabe. I don't often cry at musicals, but these moments were so emotionally connected and real that I couldn't help it.

This is the kind of show that The Citadel should be doing more of.  I understand the need for traditional shows that everyone can sing along to, but this kind of piece - the kind that challenges audiences both emotionally and artistically - is definitely the kind of risk the theatre should be taking. I am so glad they did and that they rose so brilliantly to the challenge. It's not easy, but if it was, it wouldn't be worth doing. This is the show to see in Edmonton this season.  I have already bought tickets to see it again in two weeks.  


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