Saturday, March 12, 2011

Modern family

When Atlantic Productions announced its 2011 season, musical theater geeks must have screamed collectively (I did, by myself, in front of the computer). Never has there been a musical lineup this strong, at least on these shores.

Of the four musicals, I thought that the first one, Next to Normal, would be the one I would skip. I was familiar with the songs of the four shows and I have to admit that NtN's soundtrack was my least favorite of them. I have a vivid memory of listening to it in the family car with my brother and parents on a rainy night in 2009, strong language and all. It was All Saint's Day. We were on the way to Manila Memorial Park to visit my uncle's grave. Could any setting be less normal?

Next to Normal is the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a family coping with the mother's psychological state, an offshoot of the son's early death, which still haunts her 17 years later. It is not the usual storyline for musicals, but that is how contemporary musicals are. No longer the feel-good tuners of the 20th century, the new breed of musicals have unexpected subjects--in this case complicated family dynamics and how little we know about the human brain--and succeed without relying on big budgets and special effects.

NtN is definitely and acting piece as much as a singing one, and Atlantis Productions' impressive cast delivers. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as Diana is, in a word, perfectly flawed. There is no one in town who can pull it together as a woman falling apart the way she can. I did have flashbacks of her as Aldonza in Rep's Man of La Mancha while I was watching, but more than all her previous roles (and she has had an amazing theatrical career), this must be among the most challenging, if not the most challenging role that she has done. I also have to mention that she directed an very touching production of Little Women last year, which I really should have written about.

Jett Pangan is incredibly forceful even without big gestures or reactions. Sniffles can be heard during "I Am the One (Reprise)". It was my first time to see him onstage and I immediately fell in love. Who says rock stars can't take on characters different from their band personas?

It is hard to find fault with Felix Rivera as Gabe, the son who wasn't there. I didn't think he had to show his well-toned upper body, but I'm sure that not a few were happy that he did. Bea Garcia as Natalie makes me think of a moodier version of Ellen Page in Juno. There was a scary moment in "Everything Else" but she is right on the mark all other times. Markki Stroem is a revelation as a sincerely loving Henry, with some Michael Cera-like movements. I hope he continues to do theater. It's a pity that Jake Macapagal has more spoken lines than sung because he has a great singing voice.

The cracks and the off-center lights of the set makes you feel that something is amiss. The musicians, led by Ceejay Javier, sound great. Bobby Garcia's direction doesn't call attention itself. Effective. Long before curtain call, it was obvious that the show would merit a standing ovation. I couldn't wait to get on my feet.

I watched the opening night through the kindness of M and M. I think I'll see it again. I'm willing to pay for it this time. As for the rest of the season, I will not miss In The Heights (September) for the world. Since STAGES will be doing The Light in the Piazza in July, I think I might not see Aida again (the theater budget is limited), though I would want to see it if they have an incredible title character. (The lead I had seen on Broadway massacred, and I mean seriously ruined what could have been a beautiful show. My brother and I were furious after it.) Not sure if I'd go see Disney's The Little Mermaid. The TRUMPETS version is enough for me, and since I had seen the other Disney shows (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), I'm good already with those experiences. But who knows, right? It's going to be a spectacular year for musicals and the theatergoers of Manila should congratulate Atlantis for giving us material of this quality, delivered very well.

Next to Normal runs at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, until March 27.

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