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Torment and fragility – Next to Normal

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Next to Normal
on Thursday 10 May 2012
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Rod Schultz and Rosanne Hosking. Photo: Tim Allen

One of only eight musicals to receive the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Next to Normal is making an impression worldwide. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitts’ rock musical, which premiered off Broadway in 2008 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, has astonished audiences from Broadway to West End, Peru to Israel and now, after a very successful Melbourne season in 2011, has premiered in South Australia before a packed auditorium at The Opera Studio.

Next to Normal is not your normal Broadway musical. Described by the Pulitzer Board as “a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals”, it doesn’t fail to impress. Next to Normal balances romance with tragedy, and the emotive exploration of bipolar depression not only examines the potentially debilitating effect on the diagnosed, but also the broader consequences for the surrounding family.

The story primarily follows Diana (Rosanne Hosking), the suburban mother struggling to manage her bipolar depression, and her family – Natalie (Emma Bagery) the overachieving daughter, Dan (Paul Talbot) the pillar-of-strength husband and Gabe (Mitchell Sanfilippo) the hauntingly beautiful son. The ensuing action, heightened by Tom Kitts’ music, paints an alarmingly realistic depiction of a family seeking normality, but realising that next to normal is perhaps more achievable.

While Next to Normal is described as a ‘rock musical’, there is suitable variety in Tom Kitts’ melody and orchestration to avoid the nauseating musical monotony of some rock musicals. Credit goes to musical director Peter Johns for managing his musicians and ensuring that each cast member’s vocal contribution was outstanding. Mitchell Sanfilippo’s ethereal voice is a particular highlight, and his energy in both versions of ‘I’m Alive’ was memorable. Emma Bagery’s duets with the romantic interest – Henry (Scott Reynolds) – were subtle and touching, but I found myself wishing for more sibling duets after the musically exciting ‘Superboy and Invisible Girl’.

Director/designer David Lampard’s set, while stylistically similar to its Broadway predecessor, is unique, dynamic and innovative. The ease of transition between all rooms in a suburban house, a hospital, doctor consult rooms and school is astounding. Lampard’s use of space within the set is also excellent, particularly the levels provided by the Romeo and Juliet style balcony, though the vast space available in The Opera Studio necessitates annoying vacant space to the left and right of stage.

The space posed some challenges for Daniel Barber’s lighting design. Most numbers were well lit, however there was a tendency to couple dim lighting with dark themes and while effective, I wonder if the use of colour washes might have had more impact. The resounding technical successes was the comic introduction of ‘rock star’ Dr Madden (Rod Schultz). Schultz, who also played Dr Fine, played his parts to perfection, and constantly highlighted the complexity of medical and interventional management of mental illness.

Mitchell Sanfillipo and Rosanne Hosking. Photo: Tim Allen

It was Rosanne Hosking as Diana who really stole the show. Her torment and fragility shone through, and the sense of her living on a constant knife-edge left the audience on the edge of their seat (perhaps too close to the edge based on the number of wine glasses broken). Her rendition of ‘I Miss the Mountains’ – lamenting her medically induced emotional stability – is a show highlight. Her duets with Dan (Paul Talbot) also tug at the heartstrings and leave the audience hoping for, but never suspecting possible, a happy Broadway ending.

The talent of the ensemble overshadowed a handful of minor mishaps in the opening performance of Next to Normal – perhaps microphone placement might be addressed and further attention to choreography in ensemble numbers. The rapturous standing ovation paid tribute to a performance that will improve throughout the season.

The production pairing of Six Foot Something and The Factory have produced a wonderful piece of theatre in Next to Normal. Another pleasing pairing is production partnership with Mental Illness Fellowship of South Australia (MIFSA), especially considering the magnitude of the mental illness burden. Next to Normal is a thought provocative emotional rollercoaster and if this is the future of musical theatre – get excited!

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Rowan has written 39 articles on AussieTheatre
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