East West Players’ ‘Next to Normal’ features Fil-Am actors, opens up conversation about mental health 

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If you haven’t had the chance to watch East West Players’ “Next to Normal” in Los Angeles, there are three more chances this weekend.

“Next to Normal” — the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning production based on music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey — tells the story of the Goodmans, a suburban family played by Filipina-American Deedee Magno Hall (Diana), Cliffton Hall (Dan), Isa Briones (Natalie), and Justin W. Yu (Gabe).

The all-Asian American cast also stars Scott Keiji Takeda as Henry, Randy Guiaya as Doctor Fine/Madden/Anesthesiologist, and Anthea Neri as an understudy for Diana. It is directed by Nancy Keystone with music direction by Marc Macalintal.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of “Next to Normal,” the rock musical follows Diana as she tries to be the perfect stay-at-home mother for her family while struggling with bipolar disorder. Her illness worsens as the show progresses, and it takes a toll on her husband Dan (who is Magno Hall’s real-life husband) and their teenage daughter, Natalie.

One of the early instances we see this unravel is in “Just Another Day,” when she starts making sandwiches on the floor. “I guess I got carried away,” Diana says, shrugging off a moment of recklessness, while Dan calls it “just a blip.”

Magno Hall brilliantly manifests the lead role with depth and intensity, leaving the audience with feelings of heartbreak. Yet there are times when she inserts some dark humor that it’s hard not to laugh for those necessary pauses from the seriousness.

“I always saw a Caucasian woman playing the role, so I never envisioned myself as Diana,” she told the Asian Journal. “But now that we’ve dove into this show, I can’t believe I [previously] never wanted to play this role. It’s a dream role for an actor. I’m discovering more things about the character as we continue the run.”

To get into the layers of Diana, Magno Hall said it required a lot of research and talking to those who actually deal with bipolar disorder and other issues, like depression and anxiety, for their insight.

“I tried to incorporate that all into my Diana in a way that is hopefully truthful,” she said. “It was hard to watch the documentaries, especially, because growing up in a Filipino-American family, we didn’t even talk about mental health. It was always just something that happened to other people or those in the movies.”

Playing an onstage couple is “very demanding,” Hall said, especially seeing his actual wife as such an embattled, complex character. For most of the musical, Dan is trying to hold the family together and make sure Diana is following her treatments.

“It’s amazing to be able to go on stage and emote real feelings — not that actors don’t do that. But when you look at your wife, and we have two children, and you’re talking about losing your son in the hospital at eight months old, I was directed not to cry. Though, how could I not when I’m looking at her talking about that?” Hall added. “I know it’s not Deedee up there, but I see Deedee. It’s a rollercoaster ride.”

Eighteen-year-old Briones, who has played the role of Natalie in a previous production, captures the character’s obsessive drive to be an overachiever — a scenario ever so reminiscent in Asian American families — as well as the societal pressures that teenagers face. As the musical goes on, Natalie soon faces a downward spiral of her own.

“There definitely is an unspoken rule to not talk about bad things and to keep a good front. Natalie perfectly shows that because she just throws herself into her work, her music and tries to make her family proud, which I think a lot of people can relate to. She’s a normal teenage girl but the mental health issue and all of this are thrown at her so everything is heightened,” said Briones, who is the daughter of Filipino stage actor, Jon Jon Briones.

Takeda plays Natalie’s geeky boyfriend, Henry, who brings some of the lighter moments in the show, but despite this, he proves to be a support system that Natalie needs. As Diana’s various psychiatrists, Guiaya delivers sturdy vocals and quirkiness.

Yu’s performance of the Goodman’s first-born son, Gabe, is riveting as well, as you see him manipulate Diana’s love for him and get inside her head. “I’m Alive,” in particular, is one of his breakthrough numbers.

“As a young musical tenor, Gabe is one of those dream roles. It was originated by Aaron Tveit, so how do you beat that?” Yu said. “My character really embodies mental health in the show and you can see that it really affects everyone, not just the person experiencing it. I’m excited to be sharing that message.”

It’s fitting that East West Players chose “Next to Normal” to close out its 51st season — with most of the performances falling in May, which happened to be Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. With the Asian American talent on stage, hopefully, it serves to usher more dialogue on mental health issues, often considered taboo in the community.

“It’s a beautiful story. It’s not always the easiest thing to watch, but we have an incredible cast,” Takeda shared.

The last three performances of “Next to Normal” will be at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 18. For more information or to purchase tickets, please call (213) 625-7000 or visit www.eastwestplayers.org.



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