The cast of Next To Normal | Playhouse (Pic: Jeff Busby)

On the topic of psychological disharmony, a musical of such sublime euphony. Next To Normal is story and songs made for each other, rarer in contemporary musical theatre than you might think, skirting musically-contrived sentiment with searing and unswerving honesty.

Diana Goodman is a desperate housewife with real problems: “my son’s a little shit, my husband’s boring; and my daughter is a genius but a freak” (Just Another Day). And that’s not the half of it. Diana has bipolar disorder, and is losing her grip on managing it. She dances with her doctor over balancing drug treatment — “My psychopharmacologist and I; call it a lover’s game; he knows my deepest secrets; I know his … name!” (My Psychopharmacologist And I) — only to be numbed into submission. Her struggle is modern medicine’s delimma: masking the lows, dampening the highs. In the heartbreaking ballad I Miss The Mountains she cries:

Mountains make you crazy
Here it’s safe and sound
My mind is somewhere hazy
My feet are on the ground
Everything is balanced here
And on an even keel
Everything is perfect
Nothing’s real

Husband Dan feels his wife slipping from his grasp: “Who’s crazy, the one who’s half gone?; or maybe, the one who holds on? (Who’s Crazy?). Precocious daughter Natalie fears she’s headed down the same path, pushing new love interest Henry, a romantic stoner who offers freedom, away. And the shadow of older brother Gabe looms long: “He’s a hero, a lover, a prince; she’s not there” (Superboy And The Invisible Girl).

On mental illness, grief, drugs (medical and recreational) and relationships it is, by musical standards, unflinching. Brian Yorkey has written a smart book laced with poignancy and perspicacity, balancing a firm tug of pathos with a sharp wit and grounded interaction. Tom Kitt’s pop/rock score is cohesively even yet still emotionally rousing. Great songs — and there are many of them — stand alone, while driving the narrative to unexpected places.

On Broadway, Billy Elliott stole the best musical Tony Award in 2009. Which is hard to argue with. But Kitt and Yorkey shared the award for best score, and the following year, not without controversy, took home the Pulitzer Prize for drama. As a musical, and an important piece of modern theatre, its uncompromising bravery won out.

And so the compromises made in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production blunt the piece. It can’t win, of course: anyone can download from iTunes the original soundtrack from its dazzlingly polished Broadway run, which your giddy correspondent saw live on the Great White Way and has been raving about ever since. Casting and design changes are drawn into an inevitable and unfair comparison.

The partnership of Matthew Frank, who conducts from the piano, and Dean Bryant, who steps up as director, has yielded some wonderful musical theatre, not just adapting for MTC but writing perhaps the best new Australian work of recent years in queer-eye musical Prodigal. But there’s a lack of assurance in this production, in voice and in some of the creative decisions made.

The leads, frankly, are miscast. Kate Kendall is a terrific stage actress — with something less than great singing ability. There’s emotional but not vocal range, and her voice betrays her on some of Kitt’s more demanding riffs. Some of Diana’s fierce intelligence and sharp humour seem lost, too. As Dan, Matt Hetherington has considerably more musical theatre experience but was still strangely timorous, particularly in his higher register. Having to get their tongues around the music and an American accent didn’t help — and why they chose to retain the Stateside setting, when a few minor script edits could have delivered a distinctly Australian story, is another questionable choice.

The younger cast, all MTC debutants, at times out-sings them: Christy Sullivan as Natalie, Benjamin Hoetjes as Henry and particularly Gareth Keegan as Gabe. The purest voice on stage is that of Bert LaBonte, who can do no wrong at MTC (great in A Behanding In Spokane earlier this year) in the supporting roles of doctors Fine and Madden.

Outside of Frank and Bryant’s control, perhaps, is the feeling of it being under-rehearsed: on opening night the six-piece band wasn’t as tight as you might expect; sound levels weren’t always balanced; the complex mechanical staging (and Richard Roberts’ set is at least as good as the New York original) missed a couple of cues and all the performances will benefit from more shows. I’ve no doubt this will end a better production than it started.

Without knowing how good it can be, Next To Normal is next to perfect musical theatre. But its Melbourne interpreters missed the mountain.

The details: Next To Normal is at The Arts Centre, Playhouse until May 28. Tickets on the company website.

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