01 April 2011

More fine than mad

DIANA: I don’t feel like myself. I mean, I don’t feel anything.
DR. MADDEN: Hmm. Patient stable.
Next to Normal poster
Atlantis Productions recently ended a three-week run of Next to Normal directed by Bobby Garcia, starring the veteran Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and rock star Jett Pangan. Though visiting a psychiatrist is not commonly practised in the Philippines, it is fitting to say that the musical tells of our time. It shows how even without a clear-cut definition of normal, we relentlessly strive for it anyway.

1. Musical fragments

The Goodman: Diana Goodman (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo), the mother, is fastidious. Dan Goodman (Jett Pangan) is a sweet, understanding husband. Natalie (Bea Garcia), their daughter, is a genius—smart, diligent, plays classical music on the piano. The other member of the family, Gabe (Felix Rivera), died when he was a child, but to Diana, he is still very much alive.


Gabe won’t go away. He is “more than memory”, he is “what might be”. The viewer can easily take him as a symbol of what keeps us from maintaining a peaceful life and at the same time keeps us at peace, an addiction:
I am flame and I am fire,
I am destruction, decay, and desire.
I’ll hurt you.
I’ll heal you.

Diana’s mental disorder caused by the death of his son made her family protective of her. In the poignant song,I Miss the Mountains, Diana expresses that her family protects her so well it suffocates her:
I miss the highs and lows,
All the climbing, all the falling,
All the while the wild wind blows,
Stinging you with snow
And soaking your with rain.
I miss the mountains,
I miss the pain.
And that she craves a presumably better kind of crazy:

Mountains make you crazy,
Here it’s safe and sound.
My mind is somewhere hazy,
My feet are on the ground.
Everything is balanced here
And on an even keel.
Everything is perfect,
Nothing’s real.

Because we believe that we should stick to a problem till it’s solved, that we vowed to be with our partner though thick and thin, in bouts of schizophrenia and in health, Dan and Diana hold on to each other till they can. Till Dan starts to doubt his own steadfastness:
Who’s crazy, the one who can’t cope?
Or maybe, the one who still hope?

Doctors Fine and Madden (both played by Jake Macapagal) are Diana’s psychiatrists. Dr. Fine tried to help Diana once, but to no avail, so they meet Dr. Madden who recommends electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). Erase memories of Gabe. And since the science is not perfect, other memories may be erased, too. And they have been.
You wonder which is worse,
The symptom or the cure.

Next to Normal has a realistic story that engages the audience with provocative themes, presenting the many sides of a concept—fiddling with memory, letting go, normalcy. Solutions become problems, answers are questioned.
They’ve cut away the cancer,
But forgot to fill the hole.
…with nothing to remember,
Is there nothing left to grieve?
2. Pretty normal

When Diana nonchalantly put slices of bread on the table, on the chair and on the floor, you would think that the musical will haul you into an insane ride. It’s unfortunate to note that despite the interesting (and not commonly tackled on stage) dilemmas the story deals with, the musical ends up just okay.

It occasionally falls into clichés without challenging them. Henry (Markki Stroem), a stoner and an admirer of Natalie turns out to be more normal than Natalie and her family in a sense that he’s conscious of his limits, he knows that what he is doing is wrong. Natalie, who at first finds solace in classical music (“Mozart is crazy… but his music’s not crazy”), disses it after realizing it’s too formal and structured, with no room for freedom.

The set design helps in giving a clinical, detached feel. There are no furnishings that you expect to find in a cozy home, neither is there a snug patient’s chair. The lights are utilized best when things are going wild. There’s a point when the lighting evokes images of brain neurons.

This cast is known for their vocal expertise, yet even with rocker Jett Pangan in the forefront, the singing doesn’t cut through the louder guitar riffs. And what is supposed to be a belting of high notes comes close to shouting.

On a more personal note, watching Next to Normal is like watching a TV musical. Somehow the actions and situations are not as over-the-top and bizarre as I hoped they would be. While there are clear moments of danger, when we become scared for the well-being of the characters, the musical refuses to completely shake us out of our comfort zones; the darker themes are treated mildly.

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