Sunday, April 21, 2013

Oscar Theatre Company's Next to Normal [*]

Next to Normal artwork (Source: Facebook). 
Oscar Theatre Company effectively brings Off-Broadway to Brisbane. When they announced in May last year that they were bringing Next to Normal to QPAC for its Queensland Premier, a lot of people were really excited for it. There's a lot of things I don't actually like about the text itself - the content of the text is sincere but its delivery in the storyline comes across as a bit pandering, and the score isn't great. But beyond all of that, Oscar's Next to Normal is a fairly good vision of the original text, with a good cast that only narrowly miss the punch of the roles.

Next to Normal is about a dysfunctional family where the mother, Diane Goodman (Alice Barbery), is suffering from an intense strand of schizophrenia which causes her to imagine her dead son Gabrielle Goodman (Matt Crowley) is still alive. Her husband (Chris Kellet) desperately tries to save their family by taking her to various doctors, hoping that a newly recommended Dr. Madden (James Gauci) holds the answer they're looking for. Meanwhile, her brilliant but neglected daughter Natalie (Siobhan Kranz) begins a self-destructive relationship with loveable stoner Henry (Tom Oliver) to distract her from her family's unusual situation.

While the cast are fair at acting and have good voices, only a few of them are exceptional in their roles. For the most part the punch is a bit lacking due to their vocal demands - Alice Barbery and Chris Kellet are great but both lack the power and energy to hit the powerhouse mark that their roles provide, and although they're both fine most of the time they often waft into using their head voices and the score looses a lot of drive and its blistering ferocity. They are better actors than singers, although the reverse can be said for Matt Crowley, who is fine in the role vocal wise but occasionally looks frigid and sort of kills the momentum at crucial moments by looking a little ridiculous so immobile. James Gauci is excellent for his combined total of 20 minutes on stage, but Tom Oliver and Siobhan Kranz are easily the standouts. Oliver becomes the most adorable character on stage, and the only thing that really detracts from Kranz's interpretation is how insufferable her character is - it's not edgy saying 'fuck' anymore, it's just irritating (and sometimes laughable). Their final scene was the only moment in the entire piece that really moved me.

I hadn't heard the score of the show before viewing it because I'm not a fan of rock musicals - while Next to Normal isn't an exception, it's still reasonably interesting. Tom Kitt's score is loud and toe-tapping but the drums come across as kitschy in a vain attempt to be edgy, and the small ensemble usually doesn't manage to have enough variation (also, apparently the violinist didn't tune their instrument before beginning the show either). I can remember one song, Super Boy and the Invisible Girl, because my friend yodelled it in the car last week. Some of Brian Yorkey's lyrics are a bit insipid, although there are a few gems and occasionally the dialogue is quite profound, which would probably are enough to warrant it's Pulitzer win. The story didn't really speak to me, and how the whole subject was handled felt a bit pandering, trying to be relevant and edgy but failing by introducing an optimistic ending which cheapened the whole experience.
The Goodman Family (Crowley, Barbery, Kellet and Kranz)
(Source: Facebook).

Timothy Wallace's set is frustrating since while it has an interesting concept its execution is a bit clumsy and much of what happens on the upper level is lost on the lower audience and the only view is of disembodied heads moving around (though I anticipate it would look better from the balcony). There is no exact definition of space either, with characters entering the house from about eighty thousand different entrances. The Cremorne Theatre is ideal for its intimacy but the small space seemed restrictive for creating and maintaing an authentic dramatic universe. The sound design was fine, some characters a little to quiet in some scenes but nothing much to complain about. As usual, Jason Glenwright's solid lighting compliments the action perfectly, occasionally being more emotive than any other aspect on stage.

A lot of people have blubbered about how they cried multiple times during Oscar Theatre Company's Next to Normal, and although I can appreciate why they love the show it's just not my thing. There is a lot to admire in this very ambitious staging of Next to Normal but absence of energy combined with my dislike of the score rendered the show a bit unremarkable for me. What is remarkable is the effort from the cast that really give it their best and only a few narrowly don't deliver. If you're a fan of the score and the show, then the majority of my criticism is irrelevant - it's an enjoyable evening and musical passionates and even casual fans will enjoy seeing this piece presented for the first time in Queensland.

Tickets for Oscar Theatre Company's Next to Normal are $39 - $58, and is showing at QPAC's Cremorne Theatre until May 4th. Duration of approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission. Book by visiting QPAC's website.

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