Next to Normal | Black Swan State Theatre CompanyLeft – Brendan Hanson and Rachael Beck. Cover – Brendan Hanson, Rachael Beck and Michael Cormick. Photos – Gary Marsh

Bravo Black Swan! Our State Theatre Company has closed out 2015 with an absolute cracker. Next to Normal was a triumph both in production and performance. May they be rewarded with full houses and standing ovations.

This refreshingly modern musical delves into the previously taboo topics of mental illness, grief, suicide and psychotherapy with sensitivity and sincerity. The multi award winning show debuted off-Broadway in 2008 and in Australia in 2012.

Director Adam Mitchell said it best when he described the work as giving him “all the feels”. I’ve seen a lot of Mitchell’s productions over the years and it’s obvious that he thrives when he’s on the cutting edge. Next to Normal was brilliantly fast paced and each scene blended seamlessly with the next. Moments not only had impact, they had “Wow” factor.

The brilliant score by Tom Kitt reflects the mix of passionate power ballads, rock and modern tempo preferred by contemporary audiences. The book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are heart wrenching, the characters are real and the story is so relevant that theatre goers are inclined to personally engage. Be gone to the two dimensional characters, polite relationships and trite dialogue in plays and musicals that were relevant to their era, but a bit of a yawn now. Welcome to the language and issues that are imbued in our twenty first century culture.

In her Black Swan debut, Rachael Beck exudes professionalism and experience while her character Diana Goodman, drives the action and emotional wave to each crest and trough. Her beautiful and powerful voice didn’t show any signs of tiring despite the demanding score, and her subtlety in performance set a superb acting standard. Beck ownded the dynamic changes between her character’s frenetic pace and numb or defeated stillness.

The complimentary relationship to the one between Diana and her husband Dan was that of their daughter Natalie (Shannen Alyce) and her fledgling boyfriend Henry (Joel Horwood). Both Alyce and Horwood are 2014 WAAPA grads and part of the 2015 Black Swan group of Emerging Artists. Assisted by their beautifully written characters, the two young performers more than held their own on stage with an experienced cast. Both had captivating, competent voices and built endearing characters who moved from the throes of teenage angst to the responsibilities of young adulthood.

James Bell was potent and compelling as Diana and Dan’s son, Gabe Goodman. The 2010 WAAPA grad ensured his intoxicating character permeated the minds of both his parents and the audience. Despite the fact that he rarely interacted directly with other characters on stage, he maintained a fierce presence.

Brendan Hanson as Dan, the long suffering husband and father, had more scope to excel in the second act and brought a genuine tenderness to his performance.

Seasoned professional of the musical theatre world stage, Michael Cormick, also made his debut with the company and rounded out the cast as Diana’s pragmatic doctor and psychotherapist.

Before the show I had a peek down into the orchestra pit to see what kind of hardware they had down there. I was pleased to see the standard components of a rock band, supplemented by a violin, cello, percussion and a couple of keyboards. The sound, under the baton of Musical Director David Young, was full and tight. On the odd occasion, when the lyrics were particularly rapid or wordy, I feel that the band could have been pulled back just a little because I was keen not to miss any of the narrative.

The set design was a clever contradiction in that it looked clean and simple but was incredibly complex. Director Adam Mitchell and Designer Bruce McKinven devised scenes on rotating concentric circles which allowed for quick changes. The main piece, which was a towering set of panelled cupboards, encapsulated bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchen with seamless transition. Together with beautiful lighting by Trent Suidgeest, Mitchell and McKinven were able to double the intensity of the script and performance by initiating a design effect that left the audience breathless for a moment.

Dare I suggest that Black Swan is gently ushering their loyal audiences away from the “safer” options, and toward more shows like this (and my other favourite earlier this year, Venus in Fur)? I hope so. The 2016 program certainly bodes well.

Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
Next to Normal
music Tom Kitt | book & lyrics Brian Yorkey

Director Adam Mitchell

Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA,
Dates: 11 – 22 November 2015
Bookings: Ticketek 1300 795 012 |

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