A family of four. A 21st-century household. They sing, they dance, they laugh, they cry.
The singing and dancing may be the parts where you think they are not quite normal.
But the “not quite normal” bit is really that the family is gripped by someone in their midst who suffers from mental illness.
Adrian Pang and the rest of the cast rehearsing a scene
In its latest offering to theatre-goers, Singapore company Pangdemonium Productions presents Tony Award-winning musical ‘Next to Normal’.
The story centres on Diana, a wife, mother, and sufferer of bipolar disorder, which while being a non-contagious mental condition, spreads decay into the lives of her family members.
Singapore stage and TV actor Adrian Pang, who plays Diana's husband, told inSing: “Especially in Asian society, mental illness is very much maligned and misunderstood, people don't even really want to talk about it. The person next to you might be suffering something you don’t really know about and don't really understand, and you might just think there's something not quite normal.
“The beauty of this show is, it makes you re-evaluate what's normal, and whose normal we are talking about.”
The musical runs from 5 to 22 September at the Drama Centre Theatre in the National Library Building, and British actress Sally Ann Triplett from London’s West End plays Diana.
Pang said part of the research went into meeting psychologists and psychiatrists.
“We've become friends with a group of individuals who have been living with bipolar disorder for years. They told us how, with the disorder, you get ‘highs’ when you feel so creative, special and invincible. You feel like a God, you don't even want to take medication because it dulls those feelings. But when you feel low, you just want to end it all. They've all come to the brink of just giving up. Their lives have been practically destroyed.”
The musical may soundheavy-going, but Pang assures it is life-affirming as well.
“It's a very tough subject, mental illness, but somehow, the production balances the very powerful with the hilarious and witty moments. Rehearsals are emotional, but we laugh every day. We also found it irresistible that while the musical is about Diana, it's equally about the family and how (her condition) shakes up their lives.
“We asked a carer how her mother's condition affected her, and she said she had to stop daring to dream so big for herself. It shows the power of family and how these very ****ed-up family members stick together, even though their existence can't be normal like any other family.”
He added that another sufferer told of how her husband had spent the last 30 years looking after her. His whole life is about her, and it's a very lonely existence. When she asked him why he still sticks around, he said, “I promised when we got married that I would stay with you”.
Coincidentally, those are the very words said by Adrian's character in the script.
For ‘Next to Normal’, Adrian works again with his real-life wife, Tracie Pang, who is directing the show. The couple are co-founders of Pangdemonium and have two teen sons.
Since its feel-good debut with ‘The Full Monty’ in 2010, the theatre company’s productions have sharply veered towards the darker side. In ‘Spring Awakening’ (2011) and ‘Rabbit Hole’ this year, both dealt with families coping with death, suicide and physical abuse.
‘Next to Normal’ sees yet another family turmoil, and you have to wonder if there is some connection to any experiences that the Pang family might have come across or had.
Adrian Pang said: “Including ‘Next to Normal’, the scripts are written so incredibly well, that while it's all very intense, I didn't necessarily have to draw on my own life as a father or a husband to get to those places that I needed to. I just immerse myself in the character and listen to the characters around me.”
The show has nonetheless given him some unexpected challenges.
“We're increasingly seeing true triple threats in Singapore: they're generally the 20-somethings, fresh out of training. But for the character of Diana, we needed an actress in her 40s who is able to sing and dance and act her socks off, and we had our work cut out looking for her.
“The nets we cast got wider and wider, till finally we cast West End actress Triplett. We felt so lucky that we found someone absolutely right... and when we called her, we discovered that she had been dying to play this particular part.”
Coincidentally, after extensive auditions, the rest of the cast has turned out completely multinational.
From their stint in ‘Spring Awakening’as sweethearts, Filipino songbird Julia Abueva and Indonesian-Chinese heartthrob Nathan Hartono now play Diana’s children. Australian Linden Furnell plays love interest to Diana’s daughter, while American powerhouse Juan Jackson plays Diana's doctor.
All the actors have a common challenge.
“The songs are very emotionally demanding – the lyricist has given the actors stuff that just cuts right through you. Trying to sing through them before each rehearsal, I couldn't even get to the last verse, I was just choking up.” Pang said.
Yet, challenging or not, Pang believes this work is important.
“This story is about survival. It's not just about mental illness, but also how the family is determined to not let it beat them. It takes a lot of strength, but making the decision to go and seek help, and the support and awareness of people around them, has pulled sufferers from the brink of death. And I think ‘Next to Normal’encourages compassion, empathy and even action.”
‘Next To Normal’ | Date: 5-22 September 2013 | Time: Tue-Fri 8pm; Sat-Sun 3pm and 8pm | Venue: Drama Centre Theatre, 5th floor, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street | Tickets: $30 to $88 varies with date and time, from Sistic