Thursday, 14 July 2016

Next to Normal, Phoenix Players, ANU Arts Centre

This is one of the good ones. In fact, this is looking pretty damn good for being my musical of the year. So you may want to book now (tickets are pretty goddamn reasonably priced for a musical, too), go see the show and then come back and read the review. Not least of all because I'm going to have to wax spoilerific later on in the review and if you want to avoid them, you should just go now and see a superlative dramatic musical about pain, love, loss, family and heart. Bring tissues, you'll need 'em.

So what makes this so good? Particularly given I reviewed a production of the same show at the Hayes in Sydney about 18 months ago and wasn't entirely sold? Well, part of it is that this is a much better production in several respects. Despite being a six-performer show, the emotions dealt with here give it epic size, and Steve Galinec and Anita Davenport's two-level set uses the width of the Arts centre stage to give these emotions room to spread and claim their space in a way the Hayes didn't really allow. Partially too this is a much better cast production - every performer nails their role and makes their contribution felt (again, the Hayes had some slight issues in a couple of roles).

In this through-sung musical (there is a bare minimum of dialogue in between nearly 40 listed songs), you need a cast who can dramatically sell their songs. And each of them do this with aplomb. Janelle McMenamin has one of the rare leading roles for a middle-aged woman that allows her to seize the stage - in many ways, the show utterly revolves around her, and McMenamin is by turns loving, cynical, detached, disturbed, amused, hurt, wounded, sexy and heartbreaking, and most of all constantly compelling. Grant Pegg as her husband plays a lot more repressed, as the figure who just wants to pretend everything can be resolved and that the cracks can be painted over, but the darker pain breaks through, first in moments then, towards the finale, completely. Pegg's powerful voice captures both the repression and the outburst easily. Kaitlin Nihill is pure perfection as the troubled daughter Natalie - angered and damaged by her awful home situation, defensive and scarred, but drifting never the less into a new relationship that may help her find her way. It's a role that's very easy to simplify into eye-rolling brattishness, and it's appreciated that Nihill goes beyond the surface to find the relatable core of the character.Will Huang makes it difficult for a reviewer to come up with new superlatives, but he is as electrically compelling as he's ever been, in a role that asks him to shift from gentle confidante to terrifying monster, from detatched observer to engaged participant, often in a second. Daniel Steer is loveable adorable sweet gentleness as Henry and he matches well with Nihill. Joel Hutching's two doctors are largely detached and professional (although he is able to break the cool facade for a couple of moments of rock-god-ness).

Kelda McManus' direction keeps the relationships front-and-centre and makes sure this is consistently engaging (she also did very well to corall a runaway possum on the set during intermission - possum is, I assume, not a regular cast member). Rhys Madigan runs a tight six piece band to skilful effect .Pete Barton's sound design could be tighter (there are a couple of dodgy microphone moments), while Liam Ashton's lighting design designates the many different spaces of the action well and reinforces the drama where required.

In short, a quality show, done skillfully, that will take you on an emotional journey and make you feel damn good about the quality of Canberra talent. Go, see, enjoy.


  1. Would like to point out that Pete Barton has not had anything to do with the sound for next to normal.

    1. Apologies to Pete, but he is credited in the program. And it is probably unfair to pick on him for what is a bit of an epedemic in Canberra Musicals of dodgy sound (I have reached the point where I don't go to a musical until the second week if I possibly can, because I expect opening night sound to be a bit of a debacle). Now, this isn't necessarily the fault of the designer (production week schedules often don't allow time to really get familiar with where all the sound cues are and to make them crisp and tight) but it is a problem that continues to exist. It doesn't happen with every show, but it happens with enough regularity that it's become my pet Canberra Musical Peeve.