Next to Normal

Presented by The Factory and Six Foot Something Productions
Reviewed Thursday 10th May 2012
This musical, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and several Tony Awards, is being seen for the first time in Adelaide. The music is by Tom Kitt and the lyrics and book are by Brian Yorkey. David Lampard is the Director and Designer for this excellent production, with Peter Johns as the Musical Director, making a strong and experienced team. Although billed as a rock musical, the production is more pop than rock, with an orchestra of drums, bass, guitar, cello, keyboards/violin and Johns conducting from the piano. This is not the highly amplified, often deafening music of some rock musicals. Sound is by Matthew Curtis and lighting by Daniel Barber and there is lot of fine work from both of these contributing to the effectiveness of the performance.
The central characters in the story are the Goodman family and we first meet the mother, Diana, waiting up for her son Gabe to come home. Next morning she seems somewhat overly cheerful and hyperactive as she gets the family ready to leave the house, then she suddenly starts throwing bread on the floor, quickly getting down on the kitchen floor with it. When the father, Dan, asks what she is doing, she answers that she is making sandwiches. Their daughter, Natalie, is concerned and offers to stay and help, but he tells her to go to school, and she and Gabe leave Dan to deal with Diana.
The rest of the performance finds us watching the effects of Diana’s worsening bi-polar disorder on both herself and the family, as well as the various attempts to treat her and how they, too, affect her and the others. We also discover a family secret about Gabe that is the root of Diana’s problem.
Whilst practicing piano at school Natalie meets Henry, another student whom she had not previously noticed, and they slowly develop a relationship that is then affected by Diana’s illness when Henry is finally introduced to the family, joining them for a meal. Natalie goes from being a dedicated and successful student to staying out late at clubs, drinking and taking drugs. Henry, who took drugs when they first met, now tries to help her to stop and get back on track. Meanwhile, Dan is distraught and has to make some hard decisions about Diana’s treatments at the hands of her two doctors, Dr. Fine, and the ‘rock star’ of the profession, Dr. Maddern.
Many issues are raised beyond merely highlighting the effects that mental illness can have on a wide number of other people, as well as the afflicted. It looks at the ethics of the treatment of the mentally ill and points out what an inexact science it can be, trying one drug after another in the hope of finding, eventually, the right drug or combination that works, as well as the steps taken when treatments do not seem to be working, in this case ECT, Electroconvulsive Therapy, formerly known as electric shock therapy, a treatment about which little is known and which can have the severe side effect of memory loss. It also looks at the effects of grief and suicide.
This is an awful weight for a musical to have to bear, but this is no ordinary musical. To make it work, however, the cast must do far more than sing. No matter how good the voices, it is essential that the acting skills are of a very high standard to convey everything that the script demands. This cast does that.
Rosanne Hosking takes the central role of Diana and makes it her own, in a superbly realistic and committed characterisation. It is not merely her acting and physicality that convey everything that her character is experiencing. Hosking goes well beyond that. We see so much in her eyes, from confusion, to fear, to a dull blankness when she is heavily medicated, to irritation when she loses her memory and tried hard to recall things that she is aware that she should know, to a deep sadness when she makes here big decision near the end of the work. This is a magnificent performance, and many of the audience members needed their handkerchiefs frequently during the evening.
Paul Talbot plays Dan and gives a restrained performance as a man overwhelmed by an ongoing series of events that are completely beyond his control. Talbot shows us all of that difficulty in understanding what is happening to his wife, and his anguish and pain in dealing with her treatment. We see the life draining from him as he slips into depression himself.
Emma Bargery plays Natalie, the daughter who has tried too hard for too long to maintain her own stability and who, as her mother’s condition worsens and the treatments become more intense, finally succumbs to the pressure that Diana’s focus on Gabe, and her consequent neglect of Natalie, leads to Natalie’s song, Superboy and Invisible Girl, describing her feelings about her mother’s unequal attention to her children. Bargery excels in this number, giving an impassioned rendition, topping off some excellent work in the role.
Scott Reynolds plays Henry, initially a little shy in Natalie’s presence, slowly becoming more confident as they get to know one another and ending up as her rock, as he does all that he can to help her break her downward cycle. Reynolds creates a warm, gentle character with an inner strength in a sympathetic interpretation of the role.
As Gabe, Mitchell Sanfilippo gives the character a nice air of mystery and a feeling of distance, as well as adding a rather demonic touch when things look like changing and he tries to strengthen the bond with his mother and prevent her from seeking help in order to maintain the status quo.
Rod Schultz plays both Doctor Fine and Doctor Maddern, capably delivering two very different characterisations. His ‘rock star’ moments greatly impress, and are among a few of the lighter or humorous passages in the work which, in spite of the material, does actually present a few laughs.
The set is simple, versatile and looks great and the multi-purpose ‘furniture’ works like a charm. In conjunction the with lighting, by Daniel Barber, the many locations are unambiguously defined. Unusually, the orchestra is placed behind the action, rather than to the side, as is generally the case. I suspect that this positioning actually helps the cast to get a better balance between the instruments and the voices.
The orchestra handles the music with skill and confidence, under the guidance of Johns, and the blend with the voices is generally good, although a couple of microphone cues and levels were a little off. The music itself lifts and amplifies the many moments during the production, along with a range of sound effects. Stephen Sondheim had influenced almost every composer in recent times and, not surprisingly, his influence can often be heard here. There are also moments reminiscent of themes from Jesus Christ, Superstar and even a hint of a song from Snoopy!!! The Musical. In spite of some of these recognisable theme fragments, and the intimate relationship between the music and the text, the songs are not at all memorable on one hearing and are gone from one’s memory almost immediately. A number of new musicals seem to be tending in this direction lately.
This is a worthwhile and absorbing evening of musical theatre, with a strong script underpinning it, so do try to see it while you can.
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.
Venue: State Opera Studio, 216 Marion Road, Netley
Season: to 26th May 2012
Duration: 2hrs 30mins (incl. interval)
Tickets: $26 to $55
Bookings: 8226 4759 or here or through BASS 131 246 or here

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