Musical theatre in Canberra often seems to play it safe out of perceived economic necessity, presenting Canberrans the shows they already know and love. But recently we've seen companies offer a spate of shows both old and new that aren't so familiar, giving both performers and audiences the opportunity to try something different alongside the musical comfort food. That's continuing this year and next in the line of novelties is Phoenix Players' next show, the Canberra premiere of Next to Normal.
With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Next to Normal premiered off-Broadway in 2008 before moving to Broadway the following year and ran for more than 700 performances. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won three – for its score, its orchestrations and for Alice Ripley's lead performance – and was also awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of only nine musicals to receive this honour (the others are Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello!, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park With George, Rent and, most recently, Hamilton).
Next to Normal is about the Goodman family and the effects on all its members of wife and mother Diana's long struggle with bipolar disorder. Diana, played by Janelle McMenamin, is happily married to Dan (Grant Pegg) but a family tragedy many years earlier has meant she has been plagued by anxieties, mood swings of mania and depression and delusions, all of which have been growing worse with time. During the course of the show she goes through a series of doctors (played by Joel Hutchings) and treatments, from psychotherapy and medication to electroconvulsive therapy, while her family try to deal with her situation and their own issues.
Pegg says: "They're a typical American family, like a typical Australian family, they want to love each other and get along and support each other."
But the years of dealing with the effects of Diana's illness have taken their toll. Dan has had to devote so much time and energy to her care that he has become confused and depressed himself, and daughter Natalie (Kaitlin Nihill) has become isolated from both parents, first burying herself in studies and then seeking escape in a relationship with another student, Henry (Daniel Steer), and drugs. And son Gabe (Will Huang) is his mother's confidant and her link to a happier past.
Director Kelda McManus says she took the show to the company suggesting they produce it in Canberra.
"This is not a standard musical, this is an important show," she says.
She says there are still a lot of taboos around mental illness in society and the show helps to bring the subject out into the open in a dramatic and accessible way, with a light rock score and a storyline that combines pathos, drama and humour with relatable characters.
For McManus, the show had a particular poignancy. While she was directing The Pirates of Penzance last year for Canberra Philharmonic Society and in the planning stages of Next to Normal, her father was diagnosed with bowel cancer and the latter production was postponed from its originally scheduled February season. And when her father died, she found keeping busy on a project she believed in was good for her and that the idea of what was "normal" in the grieving process – one of the subjects dealt with in the show – came up in her life as well.
Pegg, a medical doctor who's worked in mental health, says Next to Normal presents a pretty realistic depiction of psychiatric work, which isn't as exact a science as some other branches of medicine.
"There's a lot of subjectivity in it," he says.
"It's one of the last frontiers of medicine – there's so much we don't know."
He hopes people will see Next to Normal both for its entertainment value and to gain insight into themselves and other people and that the show will help start a much-needed conversation about mental health and the provision of mental health services in Canberra and the region.
"[Performing] art can portray a topic unlike any other medium – when you come and see a show you immerse yourself in a world," he says.
McMenamin has gone straight from playing a French femme fatale in Catch Me If You Can – another Canberra musical premiere – to the tormented Diana in what she calls "a dream role for me". She says she can relate to the show on several levels as she knows people who have been through the same loss, grief and illness the characters are dealing with in the story.
"I think everyone in the cast can relate on some level."
She says Next to Normal presents "a rollercoaster of emotions" as Diana's story unfolds – a woman who's been trying to hold it together for many years and is now approaching a crisis point.
It's the peeling back of what's behind the veneer of what appears normal and examining what's happening not just for Diana but for all the Goodmans that appeals to McMenamin, with no easy answers.
"It's not black and white – everything is grey."
Phoenix Players have partnered with some of Canberra's mental health support organisations – Mental Illness Fellowship (ACT), Qlife and Standby – and there will be links on the Phoenix website and contacts at performances for audience members dealing with mental health issues, either their own or those of a loved one.
Next to Normal is on at the ANU Arts Centre from July 8 to 23. Tickets $25-$35 (NB show contains coarse language, drug use and adult themes). Bookings phoenix.contact. com.au or 62531454 or dinner and show bookings from Teatro Vivaldi on 62572718.