Arts / Musical with a meaning

Kaitlin Nihill, left, Grant Pegg, Janelle McMenamin and Will Huang in "Next to Normal. Photo by Michael Moore

Kaitlin Nihill, left, Grant Pegg, Janelle McMenamin and Will Huang in “Next to Normal”. Photo by Michael Moore

PHOENIX Players’ next musical, the Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt play “Next To Normal”, is a show that deals with mental illness.

A difficult subject but, in this case, softened by its dry sense of humour, the three-dimensional characters, the great rock songs and snazzy eight-piece band directed by Rhys Madigan. All that and the fact it was a multi Tony Award-winner on Broadway and the first musical since “Rent” to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Kelda McManus finds it rich with humour and she should know. She’s directing the show for Phoenix Players in an important move for this company as it ventures into musicals with meaning.

McManus is quick to explain the need for Phoenix to balance its repertoire, often providing lighter entertainment to get bums on seats. But with the moral support of partners such as MI Fellowship, Canberra Standby Support Service and QLine, she believes this is a chance worth taking.

The script, she says, “is like a play with music”. There are small slices of dialogue, but the meaning and the dramatic development comes through the songs themselves.

“Next To Normal” is about a family – mother, father, daughter and son – an ordinary family one might think at first, until it is revealed gradually that the mother Diana (Janelle McMenamin) suffers from a bipolar condition with delusional episodes.

There are twists and turns to the drama that McManus would rather keep as a surprise, but suffice it to say this musical confronts subjects such as psychopharmacological drugs, talk therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, with a comic look at psychotherapy. As Diana’s shrink (Joel Hutchings) lists possible medications, she pipes up: “Valium is my favourite colour”.

Some in the audience won’t agree with the playwright’s angle on mental illness, but that’s okay with McManus, who argues the show is about redefining “normal” and encouraging conversations in the community about mental health.

The lyrics abound in jokes on the flawed idea of normality, as when the two young lovers Natalie (Kaitlin Nihill) and Henry (Daniel Steer) sing “Crazy is Perfect”, or Diana and husband Dan (Grant Pegg) sing, “Who’s Crazy?” and “My Psychopharmacologist and I”.

Funny the show may be, there are disturbing moments, too, as when the imaginary/dead son Gabe (Will Huang) moves in on his mother menacingly in the song “I’m Alive” singing: “I’m more than memory, I’m what might be, I’m a mystery.”

“We want this play to make an impact,” McManus says.

“It’s got humour and it’s got lovely songs, but the basic question it asks is: “What is normal?’”

“Next to Normal”, ANU Arts Centre, July 8-23. Bookings to or 6253 1454.


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