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Review: Next to Normal

Meet Diana Goodman.

Loving mom and devoted wife. Everything seems picture-perfect in their cozy little home. Their daughter Natalie is growing up to be a talented young girl.  but its her son that she had a special fondness for…  a son she lost in childbirth but is still very much alive in her mind, even more so than the rest of her family. Diana is bi-polar and her delusions are getting worse. She’s losing more of herself as the years go by. Pieces of her memory flitter in and out her consciousness as the drugs and electric shock therapies takes its toll. Her family tries to cope, but as her symptoms get worse, it becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Who’s crazy, the husband or wife?
Who’s crazy to live their whole life
Believing that somehow things aren’t as bizarre as they are?

Who’s crazy, the one who can’t cope?
Or maybe, the one who’ll still hope?

Soon the family must make a decision: continue to fight or let go.

Next to Normal is the Tony-Award winning stage musical about a family trying to cope with the ups and downs of having a loved one in the throes of mental illness. It mixes equal parts of pathos and dark comedy to narrate the tragedy of losing someone you love little by little until the familiar is all but replaced by the unrecognizable.

Mental illness is an issue rarely talked about. More often that not, instead of having a rational discourse on a subject matter as serious as this, people tend to couch it in humor. Jokes like “kung mahirap ka, ang tawag sa iyo sira-ulo. Kung mayaman ka, you’re eccentric” only help to mire the topic in myths and misconceptions.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about mental illness? A raving lunatic in a straitjacket or a psychotic killer from a horror film? Fact is, there are thousands of ways the brain can go wrong and just as many gradients of “normalcy”. But then again, what defines “normal”? What if you have an unusual phobia? an addiction or obsession perhaps, or maybe even a bout of depression now and then… what separates normal from abnormal then? With all the different personality quirks one can have, Who actually fits all the standards of normalcy?

I don’t need a life that’s normal
That’s way too far away
But something next to normal
Would be okay
Yeah, something next to normal
That’s the thing I’d like to try
Close enough to normal
To get by

The first time I saw this play two years ago, I found merely entertaining but I couldn’t relate much to it. The  show’s topic was controversial and it received mixed reviews from critics. Some called it exploitative, sensationalizing, or even trivializing the plight of those suffering from mental disorders. Others praised it for bringing to the mainstream a topic that is rarely discussed in polite conversation. How do you deal with someone who is manic-depressive, schizophrenic, or suffering from autism?

Should you empathize?


or just ignore their bizarre behavior altogether?

At that time, I treated the subject matter merely as a curiosity but years after I first saw the play, I actually met real people who are coping with mental illnesses… young people who’ve had the misfortune of having their brain chemistry misfiring at the prime of their lives, older relatives who are in various stages of dementia. The issue becomes even more painful when relatives and loved ones are involved.

The sensation that you’re screaming, but you never make a sound.
Or the feeling that you’re falling, but you never hit the ground.
It just keeps on rushing at you day by day by day by day.
You don’t know, you don’t know what it’s like to live that way.
Like a refugee, a fugitive, forever on the run.
If it gets me it will kill me, but I don’t know what I’ve done.

Suddenly, it became all that more real… the uncle who took you to the park when you were young now rocks to himself in his own little world, gibbering nonsensical phrases at phantoms only he can see, or that classmate from high school who now has to take medication for severe bouts of manic-depressive episodes… They’re no longer things you just see in the movies, it could happen to you… or people you know. And its that sinking realization of just how fragile our brains are that makes one question all the preconceived notions on consciousness and the sense of “self“. Are we just the sum total of the electrical impulses jumping from neuron to neuron? a glorified biological computer that can break down just as easily? and if something goes wrong with the circuitry, do we also say goodbye to our sense of self? And just how much of our personality is actually self-determined and how much is merely chemistry?

They tried a million meds and
They strapped me to their beds and
They shrugged and told me ‘that’s the way it goes.’
But finally you hit it!
I asked you just what did it.
You shrugged and said that no one really knows.

It becomes harder to consider the notion of a “soul” or a consciousness independent of our physical brains we realize that so much of our memories and personality is dependent on brain chemistry. The more we understand how the brain works – what drug influences which chemical reaction in the brain which in turn regulates a specific behavioral pattern, the less “mystical” it all becomes. In fact, its a sobering thought – realizing how easy it is to influence a person’s behavior either by nature or by design. Can you blame a person for being  immoral when his brain is telling him to act that way?

The story asks this very question – chemistry or consciousness? who’s really in control? Can you shock people’s brains back to a semblance of normalcy? (Even today, electro-shock therapy is still one of the viable options medical doctors consider to treat certain mental disorders). If one believes in the soul, does the soul turn crazy as well? Where then should be the focal point of treatment?

What happens if the medicine wasn’t really in control?
What happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my brain,
or in my blood, but in my soul

These and many other questions will fill your mind after watching this riveting drama.  If you want a story that’ll get you thinking about how we think, don’t miss out on this.

Next to Normal shows on March 11-27, 2011
Fri & Sat – 8pm, Sat – 2pm,

Sun – 3pm & (March 27)8pm

at the 4th Floor Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium RCBC Makati, Philippines

For more information, visit the show websites at:

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Review: Spring Awakening

The Manila run of the Tony-award winning musical Spring Awakening has just come to a conclusion. Even after the cast makes its final bow to the enthusiastic applause of the audience, the impact of the story that they have just brought to life will still linger in the hearts of its viewers. The cast and crew have stepped up to the challenge of giving life to the story first penned by Frank Wedekind way back in 1891 and now updated with a modern, rock-infused musical score by Duncan Sheik. It’s rare to see a local theater group brave enough to showcase such a controversial, risqué topic instead of just another run-of-the-mill feel-good gospel-inspired musical. Even rarer to have the hero of the story be a freethinking atheist.  Sometimes it’s good to push the envelope and get people out of their comfort zones; get everyone to challenge the status quo…

The story of Spring Awakening is more than just about teenage angst and rebellion, it’s a cautionary tale of how badly things can get when the self-appointed morality-police of our times replace knowledge with blind faith, ignorance, and forced obedience. Though the story was originally set in the late 19th century Germany, the issues they face still mirror the same problems we still have today.

The first song sets the tone… mothers shield their children from the realities of life in an attempt to keep them “pure and innocent”. They grow up ignorant of how the world works, dependent on their elders and religion to give their lives direction.

Some pray that, one day, Christ will come a-callin’

They light a candle, and hope that it glows

And some just lie there, crying for him to come and find them

But when he comes, they don’t know how to go

Mama Who Bore Me (lyrics)

In comes Melchior, the story’s Promethean character who grows disillusioned with the narrow-mindedness of the adults, their obsession with rules to the point of sacrificing free will.

All that’s known

In History, in Science


At school, at home, by blind men

You doubt them,

And soon they bark and hound you

Till everything you say is just another bad about you

All they say

Is ‘Trust in what is written’

Wars are made

And somehow that is wisdom

Thought is suspect

And money is their idol

And nothing is okay unless it’s scripted in their Bible

All That’s Known (lyrics)

He declares himself an atheist and starts keeping a journal of his thoughts which bears silent testimony of his arduous journey towards intellectual freedom.

But I know

There’s so much more to find

Just in looking through myself, and not at them

Still, I know

To trust my own true mind

And to say there’s a way through this

On I go

To wonder and to learning

Name the stars and know their dark returning

I’m calling

To know the world’s true yearning

The hunger that a child feels for everything they’re shown

All That’s Known (lyrics)

Unfortunately, it backfires when their teachers discover the notes he gave to his friends containing such forbidden knowledge.

You can ask yourself: Hey, what have I done

You’re just a fly, the ‘little guys’… they kill for fun

Man, you’re fucked if you just freeze up

Can’t do that thing, that keeping still

But, you’re fucked if you speak your mind

Totally Fucked (lyrics)

The story is full of tragic characters put into impossible situations whose plights are further aggravated by the uncaring adults who are more concerned about saving face and are more than willing to sacrifice the well-being of a few defenseless people to maintain the status quo.

Melchior discovers that his friends have died tragically, victims of societal pressures that they were helpless to defend against from the beginning because the adults have deemed it proper to keep such carnal knowledge away from children. Caught in a no-win situation, Melchior tries to take his own life as well, only to be stopped by the memory of his forgone friends who give him hope to carry on.

Those you’ve known and lost still walk behind you

All alone they linger till they find you

Without them

The world grows dark around you

And nothing is the same until you know that they have found you

Those you’ve pained may carry that still with them

All the same they whisper: All forgiven.

Those You’ve Known (lyrics)

It’s a story that asks all the important questions that everyone, even today, is still uncomfortable with. Even in today’s so-called modern Philippine society, sex is still taboo as ever; something to be considered dirty and shameful instead of being a natural part of biology. Religion and tradition still enforces archaic rules of propriety that makes people feel uncomfortable with the natural functions of their own bodies. Even something as practical as the RH Bill is met with a rabid resistance from self-appointed guardians of morality. Speaking out against biblical “wisdom” is still frowned upon. And the same sectors of society portrayed in the story (the gay-lesbian community, unwed mothers, atheists, people who aren’t as smart, rich or beautiful) are still second-class citizens. So a century after the story was first written, things really haven’t changed much, have they?

But the story still ends on a hopeful note. We who still carry the spark of freethought within us won’t just give up and die. We will not succumb to the pressures of a bigoted society. We owe it to everyone in the past and present who have suffered at the hands of myopic social and religious judgment to carry on working towards a more accepting, open-minded world.

Still you know

To trust your own true mind

On your way you are not alone

There are those who still know

Now they’ll walk on my arm through the distant night

And I won’t let them stray from my heart

Through the wind, through the dark, through the winter light

I will read all their dreams to the stars

I’ll walk with them now

I’ll call on their names

I’ll see their thoughts are known

Those You’ve Known (lyrics)

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