When the cast of Colombo’s latest musical “Next to Normal” took the stage at the Melomanic Sessions for a sneak-peak performance, their three musically and emotionally diverse performances had the audience at Melo in giggles and sudden bouts of laughter that unexpectedly transformed to pin drop silence. Presented by Theatre Junction, the contemporary rock musical [...]


It’s got everything, music, tears and laughter

The cast of the upcoming musical, “Next to Normal”, presented by Theatre Junction, talks of the challenge of taking part in a production that is a departure from the normal

Intense rehearsals: The cast at practice. Pic by Jason Eardly

When the cast of Colombo’s latest musical “Next to Normal” took the stage at the Melomanic Sessions for a sneak-peak performance, their three musically and emotionally diverse performances had the audience at Melo in giggles and sudden bouts of laughter that unexpectedly transformed to pin drop silence.

Presented by Theatre Junction, the contemporary rock musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey is a step away from the toe tapping feel good musicals Colombo’s audiences are used to. If you were privy to Theatre Junction’s last musical- “The Last Five Years” you would have had your heart strings pulled beyond recognition and your emotional buttons pushed with the two role musical that left audiences fumbling for tissues in the dark and thinking over the play long after they pulled out of the car park at the Lionel Wendt.

Directed by Anushka Senanayake with music direction by Natasha Senanayake, “Next to Normal” stays within the contemporary vision the sibling directors have for Theatre Junction.  With productions such as “Time and Motion”, “Dead Man’s Cellphone” and “The Last Five Years” under their belt, it’s easy to find a pattern in the subject matter and characters. Ordinary, everyday people facing ordinary, everyday problems. Anushka is inspired by the mundane, bringing to the stage new scripts unheard of by the local scene which explore issues that any audience member can relate to and offer a roller coaster of emotions filled in with witty dialogue, laughs and breathtaking live music.

Next to Normal made its Off Broadway debut in 2008. The story follows Diana Goodman, a suburban mother who along with her family tries to cope with her bipolar disorder. Although the play is paved on Diana’s road to recovery while maintaining her identity, the play transforms into a two hour ride exploring loss, acceptance, and modern psychiatry through the five other characters.  Backed by a live band, the soundtrack is a beautiful jumble of genres and witty, sincere lyrics, keeping to the significant chaos of the play which makes the mixed cast of rock, pop and choral singers (all with a background of musical theatre) ideal for the job.

When C.C. De Silva was first told about the relatively new play, he was naturally hesitant. “I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t like the music,” he says but he fell for the play’s witty lyrics and the contemporary rock feel that accompanies most of the songs. The front man of alternative rock band Salvage, CC’s first taste of acting came with a very unusual gig, when he turned in his customary black for a white robed Jesus in the Workshop Players 2013 production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Although JCS found him belting out dramatic renditions of “Gethsemane ”  “I got to stand around and sing,” he laughs. This time around, CC’s challenged with his role as Dan. Diana’s husband and the quiet strength of their home, Dan is the husband and father who makes sacrifices to keep the family together.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to belt out many songs, having to channel his frustration in a more “levelled way” CC explains. The challenge being trying to bring out his character’s  vulnerability. Nevertheless,  when he gets on stage and  croons “Who’s crazy—The one who can’t cope, Or maybe the one who’ll still hope? The one who sees doctors? Or the one who just waits in the car?” the tenderness in his vibrato commands the audience into silence.

Playing the least emotional character in the play is Eraj Gunewardena. Like CC, he too is faced with a similar yet completely contrasting challenge. Primarily describing himself as an actor, audiences may have seen this dramatic chameleon in plays ranging from “Grease Yaka” to the comedic “Dracula!” Musical theatre is not alien to Eraj who has performed with the Workshop Players in Jesus Christ Superstar and the Phantom of the Opera. But this is the first time Eraj is trying out a more challenging singing role. Playing the two psychiatrists- Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, Eraj’s singing however is limited to a robotic listing out of pills and prescriptions and the challenge of playing the show’s mellowest character. The play also dives into psychiatric ethics and different types of therapy through the two different types of doctors.

Stepping into the shoes of Diana and Dan’s teenage daughter Natalie is newcomer Sithara Pathirana. Having performed only in school productions, Sithara though is no stranger to musical theatre having  been in the school choir and more fantasy and fairy tale inspired musicals at her alma mater Ladies’ College. So “Next to Normal” came as a 360o turn from what she was used to. “I was excited at first,” divulges the bubbly 23-year-old, who was completely blown away by the soundtrack the first time she heard it.  “It’s got virtually everything,” she explains– from pop, rock to jazz.  The rebellious Natalie is far from a one dimensional, angsty teenager. “She wasn’t taken care of as a kid,” and uses music to escape her suppression.  Although the play is based on bipolar disorder, “it’s not just about extreme sickness” exploring nuances and the complexity of human relationships.

Playing Henry, another teenager and Natalie’s love interest is Gyles Dharmaratne.  Like the others, Gyles went in for the first reading with no knowledge of the musical but was instantly drawn in by the clever, yet everyday characters. Having played Marius in last year’s Les Miserables and Raoul in Phantom of the Opera he can’t seem to escape the clutches of the role of the love interest. “Henry is basically a loner who likes to jazz,” he says gleefully. “What I like is that it’s not trying to colour it up,” explains Gyles who like the others is enjoying the interestingly difficult task of playing normal, everyday characters with the sincerity required to do justice to the raw script.

Echoing a similar sentiment is Damien Fernando. Playing the role of Diana and Dan’s son Gabriel Damien’s role is becoming a cast favourite. A past member of Voiceprint, Damien is at home with the musical theatre genre with productions such as “Rag” and “Reality Show” on his resume. What inspires him the most is the six part harmony. “It’s out of the world”.

When Devashrie De Silva arrived at the first reading, the rehearsal ended with her fishing out tissues.  Back on stage in an acting role since her take on Christine Dae in Phantom of the Opera, Devashrie found herself researching bipolar disorder and being pulled further and further into her role. “It’s different from your typical musical,” she explains, a contrast to the fantastical characters we are used to seeing.  Although she is playing the 30 something Diana, the actress is more in tune with the teenage Natalie. “I see a lot of myself in her.”Irrespective of what music you like “there’s something for everybody” she says.While the plot is part funny, part gritty and looks into the everyday struggles of a family it tackles the more oblivious plotline in the face of uncomfortable emotions and the acceptance and joy of “just feeling”. As Eraj sums it up – “it’s messed up in a beautiful way.”

“Next to Normal” will hit the stage on September 29, 30 and October 1, at the Lionel Wendt theatre.

Tickets priced at Rs 2500, 1500, 1000 and 800 will be available at the venue from September 20. For advance bookings please contact 0777567366.

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