Next to Normal: Indie Women productions triumphs at Centrepoint!!

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

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Photo: Mike Heffernan.  Skye MacDiarmid, Derek Eyamie, Jeremy Sanders.

Singer-actress Skye MacDiarmid, repeats her amazing portrayal as Diana, a bipolar mother suffering from a combination of affective disorders including depression and PTSD as the result of the early death of her son Gabe. MacDiarmid again takes over the stage this time in the Centrepoint studio, just as she did last year at the Gladstone theatre. Her strong acting skills, her dramatic voice, and her immediate burst of talent carries us off to a realm of theatre that makes the reality of the situation much easier to watch. The script is down to earth, the characters are down to earth, and we find great strength in watching this family drama, as it unfolds around a subject matter that is not easy to watch but that keeps us deeply involved.

Seventeen years after the death of her 8 month old son Gabe, Diana remains traumatized and cannot free herself from the image of this young man he has now become, as he haunts her, becomes an obsessive hallucination that drives her into depression. This remount of the Tony Award winning musical, Next to Normal, is again staged by C. Lee Bates. The score is deftly conducted by Wendy Berkelaar on the keyboard directing a team of outstanding musicians whose playing beautifully emphasizes the emotions in the music, and creates a dialogue with the members of this family as they try to cope with the mother’s struggle to survive. There are excruciatingly dramatic moments between Diana and Dan, her husband, played by Derek Eyamie.  Eyamie transformed his whole body into a mass of suffering that was especially focussed on his facial expressions and the tone of his singing. Lashing out in helpless anger, he produced the most moving moments of this show  because of the way he incarnated the sense of loss, especially the moment when Diana tells him she has to leave and the moments he tries to tell her he is there for her – what is he supposed to do?. “I am the one” was one of those unforgettable musical numbers. His sense of loss was so powerful. The way his face fell apart, the wrinkles in his forehead became marks of pain, his eyes seemed to be pools of disaster that welled up trying to tell us how much he hurt inside. Without any soppy sentimentality or cheap tear-jerking, Eyamie became the incarnation of the impact this situation had on the whole family.  He is an excellent actor who touched me more than any other performer that evening

Daughter Natalie is on the edge of a nervous breakdown trying to deal with her parents but desperately hoping to find a family relationship that is somewhat “Next to Normal” even though the now 8 year old Gabe still comes back like an evil spirit, clinging to Diana. She has never been able to speak about their baby’s death because her husband Dan has wanted to avoid the subject, just to protect her. There is a haunting performance by Jeremy Sanders as Gabe whose voice takes on a fatefully seductive even ghostly ring as he provokes a sense of physical closeness with his mother. This touch added a sinister edge to his character and produced a performance that was both attractive and frightening. Very interesting indeed.

The audience which filled the studio was obviously fascinated by this realistic approach to mental health, even seeing hallucinations materialize on stage. It was heightened by a great variety of musical sounds that seemed to respond to the atonal twitching of strained emotions, of heightened hysterics and pounding rhythms of pop music aimed at the sensibilities of a youthful audience. It was captivating on so many levels. The musical direction by Wendy Berkelaar on keyboard made one’s hair stand on end they were so exciting.

In this remount of the show we saw last October at the Gladstone theatre, Justice Tremblay was again daughter Natalie , allowing us to bask in her beautiful bell-like voice that was a pleasure to hear. She and Skye MacDiarmid were the only ones involved in the other show. Kodi Cannon as the the pharmacologist and the psychiatrist also made an excellent impression as a singer and an actor, and Maxim David as the boyfriend Henry, sustained a warm and loyal presence throughout.

The biggest difference however, was the space at the Centrepoint Studio that affected the set and the way the music impacted on the singing. At moments, I almost missed the smaller more intimate space at the Gladstone. The Centrepoint Studio did allow some hallucinatory shapes in black and white on the walls; the two balconies worked rather well, (good design by Mike Heffernan and Sally McIntyre) especially during the shock therapy session. However, the acting area had its drawbacks. The lower tones of the musical instruments and the percussion, tended to muffle the voices of singers who found themselves at the extreme right or left sides of the stage. Not so if they were downstage centre facing us directly. The musicians were placed upstage right which was a good choice, however the acting space allowed for greater physical distance between performers which at times, broke down the intimacy and thus the intensity of the whole family situation. Thus, the numbers featuring duos or trios which had the singers close to each other, had the strongest emotional and dramatic impact although the music shone through in those numbers that had all six singers performing together no matter where they were placed. Suddenly we were listening to an oratorio and it was exciting! . It just showed the great talent of composer Tom Kitts whose work went beyond the physical conditions of the stage because there was a lot to consider in rethinking the lighting, the staging, the mixing of sound and the set in this new version of the performance.

Nevertheless, director C. Lee Bates and her whole team succeeded beautifully. This was an extremely powerful event given a strong professional production that was also highly entertaining but that may change your way of seeing the world around you. Good theatre should do that!

Next to Normal plays at Centrepoint Studio theatre, October 20 to 24.
This performance is in support of the Royal Ottawa Hospital. Tickets 613-580 2700.

Next to Normal music by Tom Kitts, Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, directed by C. Lee Bates. Musical director : Wendy Berkelaar. Choreography by Christa Cullain.

Cast:

Diana Skye MacDiarmid

Gabe Jeremy Sanders

Dan Derek Eyamie

Natalie Justice Tremblay

Dr Fine/Dr Madden Kodi Cannon

Henry Maxim David


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