Saturday, July 9, 2016

next to normal

Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Kelda McManus
Phoenix Players at the ANU Arts Centre to 23 July

Review by Len Power 8 July 2016

The original Broadway production of ‘next to normal’ won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming just the eighth musical in history to receive the honour.  A hard-hitting drama about a mother suffering from bipolar and the effect on those around her, it creates a very emotional journey for both cast and audience.  Just as the book of the show doesn’t sugar coat the subject matter, the music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey don’t pander to an audience’s usual musical expectations.  The score is a stream of consciousness that draws us into the emotional heart of the show.

Kelda McManus has done her best work as director to date with this show.  She’s kept it simple and fast moving with good placements of the actors for the various scenes.  For the most part, she has obtained very strong performances from her actors.

She has cast the show well with a group of six actors who can all sing the hell out of the score.  Grant Pegg is thoroughly believable as the well-intentioned husband.  As his bipolar wife, Janelle McMenamin sings the difficult central role wonderfully but there should be more depth in her acting performance.  More thought needed to be given to the visual signs of the progression of the illness in her character as the play unfolds.

Will Huang is excellent vocally and dramatically as the son and Kaitlin Nihill gives a well thought out and highly satisfying performance as the daughter coping with an ill mother and her own emotional journey as a growing teen.  Daniel Steer as the daughter’s loyal boyfriend gives a nicely real and moving performance and Joel Hutchings in a dual performance as two doctors is a strong and chilling presence.

The multi-level set by Steve Galinec and Anita Davenport is simple but practical and the backdrop design works especially well, given the subject matter.  Costumes by Jennie Norberry suit the characters very well.

The lighting design by Liam Ashton was excellent.  There were a few minor technical issues with lighting and sound on opening night that should get ironed out as the season progresses.  Sound balances were generally fine.

Musical direction of the show was a triumph for Rhys Madigan and vocal coach Dave Collins.  Strong attention has been paid to the actors’ diction in the songs, enabling the all-important lyrics to be heard.  Harmonies were crystal clear and very pleasing and the orchestra played the score very well.

Because of the thought-provoking subject matter, this is a very moving and memorable musical and it has been done very well.  I recommend it.

Len Power’s reviews can also be heard on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program on Saturdays from 9am.