Watching musical theatre reminds me of eating a donut. It seems like a great idea, and the first half of it is usually just what you wanted; sugary and sweet. But then the sugar becomes overwhelming , and suddenly you realize that this donut will affect the way you feel and you wish you were eating something of substance that, instead of a quick fix , will leave you feeling sustained and nourished. And without fuzzy teeth.
NEXT TO NORMAL, produced by Dancap Productions, is like a quinoa, spinach, ginseng donut. With a side of emotion. It's still got the sugary, toe-tapping numbers that's expected in musical theatre, but it also delivers a healthy dose of substance as it blasts you with the gruelling toll mental illness can have on a family, and of the accompanying help/hindrance from the medical community that goes along with it.
I have limited experience with mental illness, but what I have experienced showed me how heart-wrenchingly difficult it can be for family members who are supporting the ill, and how the person who is sick becomes defined by their illness, whether they like it nor not. It can be devastating and it's still so rarely spoken of.
Alice Ripley won a Tony award for her portrayal of Diana, the matriarch who is losing her mind, and it's easy to see why; she excels on all fronts. But last night, it was Asa Somers, playing Diana's husband, Dan, who stole the show. His frustration and heart-break at his wife's state-of-mind was evident every time he opened his mouth, and my empathy for him was overwhelming at times (just ask my boyfriend who had to endure my sweaty palm gripping his arm). I really loved that flawed man for everything he tried to do.
The best part about the musical is that the story doesn't end neatly wrapped up in a bow for the audience to feel good about; it's bittersweet, slightly messy and no one really knows what will happen. Much like life.
Dealing with difficult, "taboo" subject matter is what will keep musical theatre edgy, full of substance, relevant, and will keep the Saturday evening blue-hairs (who I know and truly love) on their toes.
Go and see this musical. But bring kleenex. I haven't cried this much in a musical since LES MIS.
NEXT TO NORMAL is playing at the Four Seasons Centre until July 30.