Next to Normal

Six Foot Something Productions & The Factory. The Opera Studio. 12 May 2012

In recent years director David Lampard has developed for himself a reputation of churning out productions of an exceptionally high standard, both in terms of performance quality from his cast, and the overall look and feel of the show from a technical aspect. This production was no exception, but I did struggle to connect with it for reasons which I will try to explain here.

Lampard, as both director and production designer, has delivered a great show; the players really knew their stuff and sang up a ‘rock’ storm, but the finishing  touches in terms of the visual aesthetic overshadowed this great work for me. I’m mostly disappointed, because I don’t think this was a bad show at all; just a show which suffered under some questionable lighting decisions.

Watching the show I felt I understood the choices made by Lampard and lighting designer Daniel Barber; the show is about mental illness and the lighting reflected the depressive nature of the piece – but for me it went too far. It was so dark on stage that I could barely make out the excellent performances, and when the stage was lit – it felt like I was watching the show under worker lights, which often left faces which should be in plain view in total darkness.

The set construction itself was fantastic. Lampard has created another stage masterpiece. The set had a lit border with some coloured lighting during rock numbers and the proscenium arch, shaped like a two story home was cleverly replicated on the floor as a reflection of the buildings outline. Moveable, multifunction boxes shaped like miniature houses doubled as tables, pianos, benches, cabinets and more – but painted in stark white (and washed out by the dim yellow lighting) were a tad too clinical for me, even with consideration for the theme.

All of the performances were, however excellent. The cast was well in touch with the themes in the play and each player with their own character’s arc within the piece. The content of the musical is difficult, and it is little wonder that the show has won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it is very well written. I did wish that Australian accents were used rather than American, as I found the accents used unconvincing and distracting – making it harder to connect with the stories.

In the lead role of Diana, Rosanne Hosking was a power house. Her strong vocalisation and profound connection to her character made her illness absolutely believable and heart wrenchingly painful. Hosking had the perfect rock sound and her voice sat sweetly in the lyric.

Paul Talbot as her husband Dan gave a moving portrayal and was at his best in the second act when it was clear he was losing his battle with Diana. Talbot is a skilled practitioner and remained a resolute and committed husband through the tough times.

Emma Bargery as Diana and Dan’s daughter Natalie sang beautifully and her rebelliousness was perfectly balanced with her underlying compassion towards her mother and love for her father. Bargery really shone in ‘Wish I Were Here’ which combined intermediality, with projected images metaphoric of both Electroconvulsive therapy and tripping on combinations of prescription medication.

Mitchel Sanfilippo played the families’ son, Gabe and demonstrated his exceptional vocal abilities in the upper register. His characterisation was also a great balance of caring and menacing, providing suitable impetus for Diana’s mental regression late in the second act.

Scott Reynolds sang marvelously opposite Bargery as the boyfriend Henry and always gave a wonderfully sincere characterisation and Rod Shultz was just perfect in the role of doctors Madden and Fine, singing wonderfully and also providing much needed moments of comic relief from the depressive content.

The orchestra played amazingly, and the sound quality was very good. Musical director Peter Johns should be very proud of what he has achieved in this production. The odd choice to space the musicians out behind the see through stage in full view of the audience and have them lit brighter than the foreground only increased my frustrations with the lighting.

It is disappointing for me that the look of this production had such an impact on my ability to enjoy and connect with the show. The second act made a marked improvement on the first, but was still far too dark in many spots and left me with an overall feeling that the show as a whole was incomplete.

Congratulations must be given to the cast though – most of the public feedback for this show so far is very, very positive – which is great news for the Next to Normal team. Hopefully for them, my grizzles and gripes are in the minority.

Paul Rodda

When: 10 to 26 May
Where: The Opera Studio