Monday, October 10, 2011

Next to brilliant

My former student Elfrida, a huge theater buff, had seen Atlantis' production of Next to Normal twice already and told me she still intended on watching it a third time. I was curious what it is exactly that she loves so much about the musical, and given that it's also a Pulitzer winner and a Tony Best Musical nominee, I decided to catch the "limited return engagement" this month. And I'm glad I did!

Next to Normal is not your typical song-and-dance musical, as it's about a family dealing with tragedy and mental illness. But in spite of the lack of choreography, it has all the other elements that make for a hit musical: a moving story, a beautiful score, and memorable lyrics. And though it's a drama, there are also well-placed nuggets of humor throughout that prevent it from getting too heavy.

There are only 6 characters in Next to Normal, but not for a moment did I miss the dynamic of a big ensemble cast. Stage vet Menchu Lauchengco plays Diana Goodman, a housewife battling bipolar disorder. Her vocals were predictably pitch-perfect, but it was her acting prowess that really wowed me. She was thoroughly convincing and compelling conveying Diana's various states of emotional upheaval: confusion, pain, elation, depression, rage, helplessness. Her fantastic range was best displayed in the songs "Didn't I See This Movie?" and "Maybe (Next to Normal)". Jett Pangan is Diana's devoted but weary husband Dan. His singing paled in comparison to Menchu's (particularly in their pre-intermission duet "A Light in the Dark"), but there was a lot of surprising depth and humanity in his portrayal of Dan's frayed patience and pained faithfulness.

Felix Rivera (by far my favorite Atlantis talent) and Bea Garcia fill the roles of Diana and Dan's kids, and both deftly delivered teenage angst and defiance in the face of their mother's condition, albeit in quite different ways. Felix had an almost menacing presence as the favored son, exuding resentment and a quiet rage while exercising a force over the rest of the family. His renditions of "I'm Alive" and "I'm Alive (Reprise)" were highlights for me. On the other hand, Bea (the lone standout in Atlantis' staging of Spring Awakening) seemed to channel s0me of Spring Awakening's rebellious energy into her part as the neglected daughter struggling to be little miss perfect. This sullen, uptight girl is offset nicely by Markki Stroem's Henry, an easygoing, good-natured stoner who becomes smitten with her. For a relative theater rookie, Markki's acting and singing were both pretty good; his duets with Bea (e.g. "Perfect for You") hit all the right sweet, tender notes. But I felt his voice could have used a bit more volume (and I also found it a bit distracting that it seemed I was looking at Chris and Charles' Tiu's long-lost brother, haha).

Rounding up the compact cast is Jake Macapagal as Dr. Madden, Diana's shrink. Jake was the least impressive of the 6, but he was engaging enough as the well-dressed, smooth-talking psychiatrist. Improved enunciation would help his future performances though.

All the characters (save for Dr. Madden, understandably) come off as achingly real in their imperfections, and their relationships all too relatable in their dysfunctions. I was moved to tears more than once-- "I Am the One (Reprise)" was the most heart-breaking scene for me, and showcased both Jett's and Felix's exceptional dramatic skills. It was at that moment I fully appreciated why Elfrida raves so much about Next to Normal. It's an entertaining musical, but more than that, it's a powerful play. And with the caliber of acting delivered by Atlantis' cast, it is a stirring, superb show.


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