It’s a rare event to attend an entirely NZ-made rock opera – but Chris WilliamsState Highway 48 opened to a packed house at the Bruce Mason Centre last night. Not your typical song and dance musical (though there are 27 songs and some pretty great dance numbers), State Highway 48 explores middle-aged ennui and the depression that often accompanies it.

State Highway 48, Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Tuesday, October 15, 2019.Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

Dave (Steve O’Reilly) and Sharon (Delia Hannah) seem to have it all – he’s got a great job, they have a beautiful home, two great kids. Life should be perfect. But the routine has got old. He’s drinking late with his work-mates. The kids complain. She wonders what has become of her life, singing “The more we have, the less I’m satisfied.” As rich as they are, nothing seems to matter. They get up, get dressed, take their meds, put on makeup, get the kids off to school, day in, day out. Nothing changes and each wonders if the marriage is working at all.

State Highway 48, Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Tuesday, October 15, 2019.Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

Arriving at work with a hangover on a typical midweek morning, Dave’s email forewarns the arrival of a consultant who will guide him and his team through a restructure. In waltzes Helen (Jenn Shelton) with the gutsy Assassin’s Song, a true showstopper, declaring there’ll be so much money – before she announces, “from today we have our course, every job will be outsourced,” and makes all but one of Dave’s team redundant, including Dave.

In shock, Dave laments that he “didn’t see this coming.” He rings Sharon and tells her he’ll be home soon, it’s been a bad day.

State Highway 48, Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Tuesday, October 15, 2019.Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

The Black Dog (a coolly elegant Chris Tempest) glides into the room. We’ve had a few glimpses of him before as Dave wrestles with dissatisfaction with his life, but now The Black Dog has him in his sway and the two of them dance a tormented pas de deux as The Black Dog reminds him of his failure, how his world is coming apart and how he is Dave’s only friend.

State Highway 48, Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Tuesday, October 15, 2019.Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

Soon Dave’s back in the bar, getting falling down drunk with his soon to be former workmates, with the Black Dog lingering in the background. Sharon turns up, angry as hell and the two have a screaming match that doesn’t end well.

What follows is the struggle to create new lives – will Sharon go back to work, will she start dating? Dave gets a downtown pad, but can he be happy there? And who’s gonna make the kids’ lunch?

While State Highway 48 deals with the struggles of depression and middle age, writer Chris Williams’ lyrics are often witty and there is enough humour in most of the scenes to keep the play from becoming bleak, though when Dave is in the depths of despair, it’s pretty dark.

State Highway 48, Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Tuesday, October 15, 2019.Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

The production values of the show are top-notch, taking full advantage of The Bruce Mason Centre’s capabilities. The sets are cleverly designed and managed with the precision of a big-budget overseas production. Clare O’Neil‘s choreography is a delight, especially during an office scene, We’re So Busy, So, So Busy, where Dave and his team rush around on the job – taking advantage of workmate Otis Herring‘s skills as a professional dancer. Music director Mark Dennison and the band (hidden behind the stage) deliver a robust score that creates a surprisingly comfortable home for the players to live in and sing their lines.

State Highway 48, Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Tuesday, October 15, 2019.Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

The standout performance comes from Chris Tempest as The Black Dog. He has a wonderfully smarmy quality, perfect for the back-stabbing ‘only friend.’ I would have loved to see another number from Jenn Shelton, her delivery of The Assassin’s Song was simply brilliant.

Delia Hannah was delightful reprising her role as Sharon. She has a powerful voice that easily conveys the range of emotions she experiences as her life is torn apart.

State Highway 48, Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Tuesday, October 15, 2019.Photo: David Rowland / One-Image.com

The only character that doesn’t feel quite right is Dave. Steve O’Reilly has a great voice, and perhaps it was opening night jitters, but he just didn’t convey enough warmth and vulnerability to make me really care about him. Granted, it’s a tricky role playing someone who’s masking depression with booze and arrogance and making them likable, but I felt something was missing, something that would make me root for him, despite his flaws.

At a full two hours (plus a 20 minute intermission) the show felt a little bit long. While there were a good number of standout songs, there were a total of 27 and it seemed a few could have been cut, or condensed to keep things moving along. That said, it was a lovely night of theatre and State Highway 48 does us proud.

State Highway 48 runs through Saturday 19 October at The Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna.

Click here for tickets and information.

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