Tag Archives: ANU Arts Centre

Next to Normal, ANU Arts Centre*

9 Jul

I attended Next to Normal by Phoenix Players at the ANU Arts Centre as a guest

It’s a normal day in the Goodman household and it’s starting before dawn.

Diana Goodman (Janelle McMenamin) can’t sleep so she’s awake when her cheeky teenage son Gabe (Will Huang) arrives home well past curfew; she distracts ‘boring’ husband Dan (Grant Pegg) – woken by their voices – with the promise of sex; and she offers pathetic comfort to studies-stricken overachieving daughter Natalie (Kaitlin Nihill). As the sun rises and the day officially starts, Diana begins making sandwiches for her family but it’s obsessive and repetitive and obsessive and repetitive and obsessive and repetitive until she finds herself on the kitchen floor, still making the sandwiches. The family collectively recoils before Dan organises a trip to the psychopharmacologist (Joel Hutchings). Diana is bipolar depressive with delusional episodes, and so it has been for 16 years.

It’s been a normal day in the Goodman household.

And while this is how we’ve been introduced to Di’s feelings about her family, soon it’s revealed how her family is feeling and behaving. Daughter Natalie craves attention from her mother yet finds no sympathy for her and feels that Dan has equally abandoned her; she finds warmth in stoner music student Henry (Daniel Steer). Gabe is the golden child who supports his mother’s choices and desires to feel something; to not have her life dulled by medicine. Dan is depressed and tired; Dan knows he controls as much as he can without controlling anything important.

And the catch? (Potential spoiler so this is in white text – highlight over if you really want to read it.) One of these characters isn’t alive.

Next to Normal is powerful, relatable theatre. With a rock – and occasionally comedic – score there’s real risk that it could descend into the absurd or glib. It never does.

This is a musical that’s about competition for presence. Gabe and Natalie compete, unequally, to be noticed; to have their presence acknowledged. Dan seeks validation without ever asking for it. His desire for his presence to anchor Diana is palpable, yet it occurs, achingly, just once when she is in a particularly vulnerable position; he simply doesn’t have the strength of presence to help her. Doctors Fine and Madden use every trick in the book to help make Diana fulfill her presence – to make her present in the here and now, to not drag the past with her. And it’s about what can happen – to anyone, any demographic, any background – when someone is no longer present in our lives.

Each actor is genuinely strong in their roles but Pegg and McMenamin – Dan and Diana Goodman – is the duo that matters and they convince me. Together, the ensemble is musically extraordinary – the last song is perfect – but individually inconsistent. Consistently excellent Will Huang (High Fidelity) seems to be exercising restraint until his final songs in Act II which are powerful and aggressive. Grant Pegg (great in last year’s production of Evita) and Kaitlin Nihill (this year’s Beauty and the Beast) are strong throughout, while I would have liked to hear some stronger voices from Joel Hutchings and Daniel Steer who each appear to be solid but quiet.

Most perplexing of all is McMenamin. While her acting is utterly brilliant and she is a superb casting choice, I dismiss her musical voice early as weak, before being thrown (in a very good way) by powerful ballads – and so this rollercoaster continues throughout the night. I genuinely believe she is excellent – and I hear every few songs just how good she is – but I just don’t hear it throughout and it’s distracting.

For the dark themes it delicately explores, this isn’t a musical that preaches but one that is matter-of-fact throughout. Supporting this is a bare-bones set, which seems purposely designed for the skilled actors to help jumpstart what the scene calls for – a simple, slightly raised platform is easily Natalie’s bedroom in one scene and a pulsing nightclub in the next.

It’s 20 minutes too long – like West Side Story, all the action and the best songs are in Act I (that’s where the similarities end, I promise) – so I recommend a glass of wine in intermission.

But I’m nitpicking, of course. This is one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve experienced in at least 18 months. Sure, it’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning, and that helps. But it’s the fact that – yet again – a local company has pulled off theatre like this with such aplomb that makes it unmissable.

Date: Friday, 8 July 2016

Where: ANU Arts Centre, Union Court

When: On until Saturday 23 July

Cost: An adult ticket is $35; see here for full price details 

Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile

High Fidelity, ANU Arts Centre*

8 Feb

* I attended the High Fidelity musical as a guest of Phoenix Players.

First there was the 1995 Nick Hornby book (set in London), then there was the 2000 movie starring John Cusack and Jack Black (set in Chicago), and then came the musical. Most importantly, the musical then came to Canberra, in the form of a production by local Canberra amateur theatrical company Phoenix Players.

High Fidelity is the story of a directionless record store owner Rob (Zach Raffan) and his girlfriend, Laura (Josie Dunham) – well, his ex-girlfriend, having just broken up with him. Rob’s been through all manner of painful break-ups, but this one really stings – especially when Josie shacks up with his former neighbour Ian (David Cannell). With some help from his friends and music (and rockstars themselves), and a healthy dose of reflection on his past break-ups, Rob starts to re-evaluate his life and determine if Laura could still be part of it.

While Rob grapples with his love-life, his two employees Dick (Will Huang, who starred in the excellent production of The Burning last year) and Barry (Max Gambale) – guys who he hired on a part-time basis but have been coming to the store every day for the past four years  – manage the maintenance of the store’s mediocrity by insulting most of its customers, as they pursue some love interests of their own.

I’m struck at first by the clever set design and use of light; little change is needed to easily flick from scene to scene as moveable walls rotate to turn one part of the record store to Rob’s small apartment, or a scene at a gym. The band-shirt costumes are great, and I find myself wondering where this collection has been pulled from.

The production lacks some of the 90s grunginess I’m expecting but it’s easy to overlook this thanks to some stand-out performances. Josie Dunham’s and Amy Dunham’s (Liz, Rob and Laura’s friend) voices are superb: every scene in which they sing is a thrill. Huang and Gambale provide comic relief (along with their own excellent voices), and support Raffan’s efforts. I’m particularly impressed with Gambale: the character is played by Jack Black in the film which is huge to live up to, but Gambale makes the role his own. The tricky part of the show being a musical, however, is that the score is only influenced by classic rock genres – and, to be fair, performed brilliantly, if not a little loudly – meaning the actual music you’d expect in a record store is missing. It’s this which made the film for me, and there’s a vacuum without it.

There’s a lack of chemistry between Josie Dunham and Raffan which is particularly distracting at the end. Rob’s relationship with music doesn’t feel fully spelt out, so the scenes with ‘stars’ including Neil Young lack context and I think could be done away with; they make a long second half feel it. Despite this, the show’s able to be energetic and fun while putting forth the story of really a rather morose character; this energy is borne from what feels like a real commitment to the production from the cast and production team. It’s a commendable show to make for an enjoyable Saturday night.

Date: Saturday, 7 February 2015

Cost: I attended as a guest of Phoenix Players

Where: ANU Arts Centre (near the refec – ish)

Want more? The show runs until 21 February. Tickets and more details can be found here.