There’s no shortage of musicals that deal with subjects you wouldn’t instinctively think to sing about. Tom Kitt’s Next to Normal deftly tracks the realities of a dysfunctional family whose matriarch suffers from worsening bipolar disorder. Jason Robert Brown’s Parade (arguably his career-best work to date) depicts the lynching of Jewish American Leo Frank against the racially charged backdrop of Georgia in the 1910s. Jeanine Tesori’s Violet follows a disfigured woman who embarks on a journey seeking a miracle from a faith healer (OK, maybe that one checks out). Despite their content, all three of these musicals have either won or been nominated for Tony Awards, and are among some of the most enduringly popular works in the canon.
The thing is, the effectiveness or merit of a musical has nothing to do with what it’s about (you might think you could never write a musical about the Titanic or Evil Dead, and you’d be wrong) and everything to do with how the medium is employed to tell the story. As I mentioned in my review of Diana: The Musical, one of the most common criticisms people have of musicals is that ‘nobody would just start singing like that in real life.’ Of course they wouldn’t. To think this is to misunderstand the role of singing in a musical in the first place. A character sings because they can no longer speak. What’s been said has been said, but now the character needs to unpack the spaces between the words — the spaces normally filled with silence can be given a meaning of their own. What’s not been said can now be said, too. Singing allows a word, syllable or thought to last much longer than in speech, giving the composer the opportunity to add nuance and depth to the text that simply isn’t otherwise accessible.
The reason I spend so long on this preamble is to highlight how difficult it is to write a good musical (or, more specifically, how difficult it is to write one where the songs serve and propel the story, rather than give the audience a break from it). At such an early stage of its development, Duncan and Erin McKellar’s intimate creation A Box of Memories already does a lot right. It also does a lot terrifically well, and despite a few clunky moments that need ironing out, it genuinely has the potential to become a beloved staple of Australian music theatre.
The story is simple enough, and this is the key to its relatability and, consequently, part of its effectiveness. Lizzy (played by Kathie Renner) is a woman struggling with the onset of dementia. Her daughter Sonia (Lauren Henderson) tries to keep all the plates spinning, desperately juggling her family life, work and an indifferent doctor, Jeremy (Mat Noble), amidst her mother’s deteriorating condition. It was abundantly clear by the near-universally adopted audience reactions of tearful nods and glances that there are few among us completely (and mercifully) untouched by this disease. An opening address by Duncan McKellar (a geriatric psychiatrist with first-hand experience) revealed that dementia is the second-most deadly disease in Australia, and the leading killer of Australian women. The accuracy and authenticity of the story itself is above reproach.
Erin McKellar’s music reveals a maturity and insight beyond her years (and the importance of pianist David Goodwin’s impeccable playing and interpretation cannot possibly be overstated). The songs (in particular, their vocal writing) are sophisticated, memorable, and evocative and dance adroitly through contemporary pop, jazz, rock, and more textbook music theatre. The strongest example of Erin's talent that best proves its existence in the show is the surprisingly comic ‘GNT,’ in which Sonia justifies her desire for an alcoholic beverage. Free from the constraints of having to literally spell out the evolving story, ‘GNT’ pauses a moment in time and ruminates on Sonia’s current situation. In doing so, it pushes the story forward far more efficiently than those songs which are closer to sung dialogue.
The pair’s lyrics don’t always translate naturally in a rhythmic sense, causing a few moments of awkward scansion in Erin’s melodies. The libretto also sometimes leans too hard into exposition, describing the character’s motivations rather than letting them speak for themselves. This results in a couple of moments of redundancy, where the dialogue is more or less immediately repeated, but in song form. However, this is an easily forgivable structural concern of a production in such early stages of development and will likely be streamlined with subsequent rewrites and tweaks as the creators and performers spend longer in the characters’ world.
Even in the context of the Adelaide Fringe, it’s hard to imagine there being a performance running this season with a higher standard of singing than A Box of Memories. Lauren Henderson, Kathie Renner and Mat Noble are three of Adelaide’s finest vocalists, and to have them all collaborating on this new work is a blessing that few creatives are afforded so early in the process. Their blend is astounding.
Henderson’s acting is genuine and layered, extracting a great deal more poignancy from the script than is immediately obvious. Her vocals are absolutely immaculate — her performance of How Do I Decide? (another of Erin’s most assured songs, and my personal favourite) is breathtaking. Kathie Renner’s theatrical debut carries a remarkable degree of restraint and a deft command of tone in a role that easily could have descended into caricature in the hands of a lesser performer. Renner’s vocal control is typically unwavering, showcasing a mastery of colour that reflects Lizzy’s erratic states. While his character isn’t quite given the arc he needs in the second half, Mat Noble does impressive work in injecting his aloof and uncaring Jeremy with the heart of a man who has learned to shut himself off from his patients as a mechanism of defence and denial. Noble’s powerhouse voice smashes through the stratosphere and makes short work of the showstopping ‘Vitamin H,’ a vocal feat I would be surprised to hear replicated in future productions.
The creation of a new musical is a hard slog, many never managing to claw themselves out of development hell and onto the stage. It would be admirable enough for A Box of Memories to simply exist in the form that it does at this point in time — the fact that it's already as good as it is is the icing on the scone, and further proof of both its potential and the McKellars' impressive achievement thus far. If additional performances are scheduled, there are few other ways I would suggest you spend your money. Long may it run.
Performed at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, Sunday 27 Februrary.