Mar 24, 2011

[Theater] Next to Normal (Atlantis Productions)

Next to Normal (Atlantis Productions)You can listen to the soundtrack of any Broadway musical as much as you want, but it never quite replaces the full experience of watching the actual show. Heck, you can even go as far as reading the plot summary posted on the web as you go through the music in order to try and piece together the full story, but still it's never enough. These are truths that speak of how uniquely powerful the medium remains to be and why I believe that musicals and theater works in general will never go out of style. They continue to perform a relevant role in our cultural development as a species - an art form that focuses on telling stories that capture aspects of our daily lives.

True enough, there are a lot of campy, corny musicals to go with all the serious ones. And there are the deathly serious ones that go a tad overboard and are a struggle to watch regardless of your love for the theater. But there are those key plays that hit that sweet spot - that masterful balance of a dramatic concept with strong music, great acting and light touches of humor when appropriate. It's never easy putting a musical together given all the diverse elements that have to learn to work together. But when they do manage to align just right and all the pieces work beautifully, the end result is something else entirely.

It's because of this search for such great musicals that inspire the soul and move our hearts that I continue to not just love but fully embrace the medium. And I'm glad that there are those who fight to keep the musical spirit alive locally, thus giving us access to some of the great plays that have added something special to Broadway's legacy.

Originally I was supposed to post this review a few weeks from now, but after watching the show, I knew I had to rearrange my posting schedule to bump this production up. If anything, I just hope that readers like you get to catch this review in time to get tickets for one of the last performances before the show ends this particular run. Or better yet, hopefully Atlantis will schedule a second run for those who fail to get tickets in time!

Next to NormalImage via WikipediaNext to Normal is a rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt. It started off-Broadyway in 2008 and finally debuted on that famous street in April 2009. The musical went on to win the Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley but lost the title for Best Musical to Billy Elliot. This staging was facilitated by Atlantis Productions and runs from March 11-27, 2011.

The story revolves around the Goodman family. At first it seems everything is just fine, if just a little off-kilter. Then again, what family isn't, right? It starts with the mother, Diana (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) who is up late waiting for her son Gabe (Felix Rivera) to come home. Then her daughter Natalie (Bea Garcia) turns out to be awake as well burning the midnight oil as she studies for school the next day. The father, Dan (Jett Pangan) calls her back to bed and things seem to be perfectly fine. Come morning, Diana starts preparing lunches for everyone but becomes over zealous in her efforts and soon every surface (including the floor) is covered in sandwiches. The kids are sent off to school as Dan offers to bring Diana to her doctor.

Natalie vents her frustrations with her family through her piano playing and in the practice room she encounters Henry (Markki Stroem), a classmate who clearly has a thing for her, along with recreational marijuana. As for Diana, it's revealed that she's been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and has been suffering hallucinations for over sixteen years. Doctor Fine (Jake Macapagal) continually adjusts her drug regimen in order to cope with her imbalance but this results in her feeling numb and listless.

Thus the play goes through the life of this family as they all deal with Diana's mental illness, since such things always affect the whole family unit and not just the afflicted family member. At the heart of it all is a much deeper secret, one that drives Diana's mental disorder.

The music of this play had blown me away the first time I had gotten a chance to hear the soundtrack. And despite those kinds of expectations we inevitably have when comparing a show to its Broadway rendition, I was equally blown away by the Atlantis cast when I managed to catch the show last March 20. The vocals of this play are no easy feat coupled with the challenge of how emotional most if not all the songs are, the cast did tremendously well. And that's saying a lot given this is a play that plays out with the rock tempo of Rent and the complex melodic layering of Sondheim.

At the heart of this play is the role of Diana, a character that Menchu brought to life in an amazing manner. There wasn't a dry eye in the house that afternoon, and there's no questioning a large part of the emotional impact of this play is thanks to her stellar performance. The role is demanding on so man levels - vocally, emotionally and even physically. And in every category, Menchu truly shined and made sure we all felt Diana's struggle and felt her pain.

Equally amazing was Jett Pangan as Dan, the ever-supportive and amazingly faithful husband. As much as dealing with a mental disorder is a challenge for any family as a whole, the weight weighs most heavily on the husband in this case as he has to struggle to keep the family together while remaining true to the woman he fell in love with, even though it's hard to associate her with the person she has become now. Jett's performance both in terms of acting and vocal prowess. In fact, the lady seated next to me was but one of those most moved by his performance compared to all others given how much Dan sacrificed in order to continually support his wife and her illness.

This brings me to an interesting thought a friend of mine shared with me right after the show. Mahar, who is one of my oldest friends and one of the few people that love musical theater more than me, said that we have all been in the shoes of one or more of the characters at some point in our lives. And yes, that's very much true - with a family being the centerpiece of this musical, the show provides situations and roles that we can all relate to, to some extent. And I'm sure that has also factored into why the play has had such a strong emotional impact on audiences all throughout the run thus far, such that they now give out free packs of Kleenex at the door before the start of the show. Believe me, you're going to need it.

But going back to the cast, we can't ignore the younger generation of this play who also did a stellar job. At times Felix's performance as Gabe wasn't just powerful - it was downright scary given the unique situation of the son. Bea really impressed me as Natalie given how she was able to master the complex emotions of the character and the unique struggles she had to go through given their family situation. Newcomer Markki Stroem wasn't too bad either - he was certainly impressive vocally although I can see that his acting abilities still have some opportunities for growth should he opt to further pursue a career in theater.

The production was stellar from start to finish, that's for sure. The set design was an interesting adaptation of the original Broadway styling - a complex multi-level layout that allowed for very diverse sequences and a lot of action. Plus the inherent dangers of the design given areas lacking guard rails for the actors seemed to provide an implied feeling of danger and the kind of edginess that works on the subliminal consciousness of the audience members, thus heightening the emotion even further.

All in all, the Atlantis staging of Next to Normal is one of, if not, the best musicals I've seen in many years and perhaps my favorite Atlantis play to-date. Sure, the content is rather and emotionally draining but the end result is a truly cathartic experience for any theater-goer wonderfully put-together with amazing music and great direction. You still have a chance to catch the show this weekend and with luck Atlantis will grace us with another run of this powerful production.

Without providing further justification, Next to Normal gets a full 5 cases of drug use (whether prescribed or illicit) out of a possible 5.
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