Bottom picture (L to R): Juan Jackson (Doctor), Nathan Hartono (Gabe), Sally Ann Triplett (Diane), Adrian Pang (Dan), Julie Abueva (Natalie), Linden Furnell (Henry)
Pangdemonium has nary a time disappointed me completely with their productions. In fact, most of them are stellar. I’ve watched quite a few in the short span of a year or so: Swimming With Sharks in 2011, and more recently, Rabbit Hole. Now, it’s a fantastic staging of Next to Normal.
This is the fifth performance so far and already people have been saying that it’s better than the Broadway version (which is a really high call). To be honest, I’d been skeptical of local musical theatre, and even more doubtful when people told me it’s better than Broadway. Yet NTN went far and above my expectations for a local musical theatre piece, and I am now a diehard fan.
First of all, let’s start with the stellar cast. Sally Ann Triplett plays Diana, the bipolar mother who is still reeling from grief. Her powerful performance each night makes you wonder how she summons the emotional strength to keep at the role powerful at a visceral level. Although frankly speaking I should have expected this gut-wrenching performance from her after the sitzprobe I watched, I still got socked by the depth of the paranoia and fear portrayed. Adrian Pang plays Dan, the stricken father who is trying to hold his family and wife together as he struggles not to fall apart himself. Oh, Adrian, your performance was the most heartbreaking of the nights. Never mind that your role was meant to illicit tears, but your depiction of the unerringly faithful, vulnerable partner was heartrendingly realistic and beautiful.
Nathan Hartono as Gabe was a splendid choice for me. He has enough exuberance and the energy to bring the whole concept of being alive to another level entirely. His voice, although lacking in vocal power, has a metal edge and even takes on a really sinister undertone as he sings Aftershock. For a soothing singer like him I was really surprised. Julie Abueva packs a punch in her performance of Natalie, the angsty teenage girl who is forced to bury her own desires and hunger. She was angsty, yet not overbearingly so, leaving space for the audience to empathize and love her back. Oh, and as Matthew Lyon of InkpotReview puts it, she still sings like God’s younger sister.
Juan Jackson and Linden Furnell as Doctor & Henry were commendable as well. Juan Jackson put up a great showing with the rock parts yet a persuasive performance when trying to convince Diana to stay in treatment. Linden Furnell is a spectacular rendition of younger Dan/faithful lover who doesn’t give up. I don’t think anyone left the theatre untouched by Henry’s devotion and love for Natalie!
Overall, I felt that the set design of this local production was better than the Broadway one, if not least for the fact that the Broadway production had 3 levels which could leave one feeling a little distanced. The set of the local production left you feeling like Gabe was constantly either running about in Diana’s mind or manifested himself in her delusions. He was very rarely out of her mind, in fact. The two-level set also made it convenient for Gabe to run around while singing I’m Alive, a perfect example of how ubiquitous he is. The set definitely worked in his favour.
I watched this production twice, and I have no regrets. Next to Normal is a musical that gets under your skin and pricks you long after you have left the theatre. Again, this is a thought-provoking piece, and definitely not for the feel-good musical theatre lovers. If Pangdemonium restages it, I would rewatch it (again) and purchase anything they’ll record. This is definitely in the running for my top 5 favourite stagings of the year.
My tracklist of NTN songs has been looping since the day I left the theatre, and here are my top 5 favourite showtunes:
1. I’ve Been – Aaron Tveit and J. Robert Spencer
Perfect track to showcase Dan’s undying love for his wife even through the most shocking and tough days. And that harmonization is simply a piece of Heaven, it moves me to no end!
2. A Light In The Dark – J. Robert Spencer and Alice Ripley
Persuasive husband convincing wife to take treatment. Another really tear-jerking moment in the musical. Sigh!
3. Why Stay? – A Promise – Alice Ripley, Jennifer Damiano, Adam Chanler, J. Robert Spencer, Aaron Tveit
A very brutal question thrown right into our hearts and then a reminder of a promise that Dan/Henry made to Diana/Natalie. Heartwarming!
4. Perfect For You – Jennifer Damiano, Adam Chanler
Isn’t this the most unorthodox confession song ever? I still love it though.
5. Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I’m Falling – Next to Normal Cast
I think this has the whole play summed up. Damn. The feels.