Review: L.A.'s East West Players presents Emotional 'NEXT TO NORMAL'
Michael L. Quintos
As you may have noticed, there has been a lot more stories and articles lately—particularly even on this very site—about the tone-deaf, racially-insensitive, misguided "whitewashing" of theater roles that have previously been specifically connected to a person (or persons) of color. What do we mean? Imagine the King of Siam in "THE KING AND I" played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Imagine Effie White in "DREAMGIRLS" played by Emma Stone. How about seeing Motormouth Maybelle in "HAIRSPRAY" played by Melissa McCarthy? Cringing yet?
Not to say that these actors are incapable of essaying such challenging parts—I'm sure these talented people can do wonders with these roles. But, well... no matter how publicists may spin it, it's just not the best, most racially-sensitive idea.
Perhaps because of a smaller (or likely non-existent) pool of auditioning hopefuls to choose from, many regional theater companies across the country forge ahead anyway with plans to do their productions by rewarding specific characters identified for people of color to actors that may not, um, match said parts. Eschewing any sort of common sense, culturally-specific character roles are handed over to white actors in ethnic make-up (yikes) or to slightly "ethnically ambiguous" actors that can somewhat "pass" for whatever the character supposedly identifies to be. This, unfortunately, allows for said actor to "ape" an ethnicity that is likely unlike their own. The resulting "whitewashing" often peppers a role with ugly stereotypes and even (at times) ridiculously over-emphasized "accents" while covered in that character's native garb, hoping the audience doesn't take offense or notice the racially-insensitive irregularity.
Such a casting faux pas is certainly the more unfortunate consequence of color-blind casting, a practice that, when employed in its original, more positive intention, can and DOES produce some incredible work—particularly when casting for roles that were not specifically tied to a racial or ethnic make-up from the get-go, opening up the possibilities for wider diversity and, in the bigger sense, more universal appeal and connectivity.
Well, you don't need to look much further for excellent, genuinely uplifting examples of the latter than at East West Players (EWP), the nation's longest-running professional theater of color in the country, as well as the largest producing organization of Asian-American artistic work. To close out its historic 51st season, the theater company is presenting a bold and emotionally-packed production of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "NEXT TO NORMAL," which continues performances at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts through June 11, 2017.
Featuring a deeply connected, all-Asian-American cast led by a stirring, awards-worthy performance by Deedee Magno Hall, EWP's top-notch production of "NEXT TO NORMAL"—like the company's other musical revivals—is presented with the original material mostly if not wholly intact. No worries... the same music by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey is still featured front and center. The only significant and, of course, the vibrant difference is that this time, the same original material—free of any callouts of a specific ethnicity—is performed and dramatized by a superbly-assembled Asian-American cast. Not only does this small yet impactful alteration create an entirely new contextual layer to "NEXT TO NORMAL" and its examination of the hardships that may occur behind closed doors of "normal" suburban households, it also reiterates the idea that some stories depicting some of life's big challenges and small breakthroughs transcend both race and religion, thereby becoming a universal entity that anyone can absorb or enjoy.
Magno Hall—in a truly lived-in, emotional gut-punch of a performance that had me wiping tears for most of the evening—plays Diana Goodman, an over-expressive and over-sensitive stay-at-home wife and mom who tries to smile through her day while suffering from her debilitating and increasingly worsening bipolar disorder, a condition continually exacerbated by a tragic event in her family that reverberates through the entirety of the musical and affects everyone in its wake. We watch as Diana experiences the confusion of her madness and then contends with the consequences of her illness on her fragile relationship with her family. We watch as Diana goes through therapy, medications, and hallucinations. We watch, with tears, as Diana tries to find a way out.
The gutsy portrayal of a woman on the brink—ascending to electrified highs then turns on a dime to crash down to painful lows—is a testament to Magno Hall's incredibly dramatic and singing skills, a laudable contrast to her more buoyant day job on the Cartoon Network series "Steven Universe." Her heartbreaking facial expressions coupled with her emotionally intense singing are still seared into my brain long after the Opening Night performance ended.
To the production's benefit, Magno Hall is surrounded by a fine supporting cast, all under the thoughtful, yet the deft direction of Nancy Keystone who stages the action as if Diana is a dying supernova surrounded by slowly darkening satellites progressively unable to keep up.
As we follow Diana's journey and how she tries to cope—and, perhaps, find a cure for—and eventually live with her illness, we are introduced to the many people in her life affected by it: mainly her smart yet oft-ignored teen daughter Natalie (the glorious Isa Briones) who is noticeably spiraling down a dark path herself, and her long-suffering yet ever-so-loyal husband Dan (played with palpable strength by Cliffton Hall, Deedee's real-life hubby). Watching and observing and, in a way, manipulating every event in the family is son Gabe (Justin W. Yu), whose very existence (or otherwise) in the shadows triggers many of Diana's "episodes." Gabe is the center of Diana's universe, much to the helplessness of her daughter and husband.
Helping out the Goodman family in the periphery is Randy Guiaya in the dual roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, two of Diana's shrinks. Scott Keiji Takeda enters the scene as Henry, Natalie's hipster classmate and paramour who stands by her much in the same manner as Natalie's father does with her mom.
Visually, the production design ably reiterates the duality of the musical itself: the seeming flatness of normalcy disrupted occasionally by maddening bits of topsy-turvy lighting. Hana Sooyeon Kim's transformative bi-level set allows for rooms and set pieces to emerge seamlessly from beyond partitions. Its flat-white façade is colored well by Karyn Lawrence's mood-altering lighting, while costume designer Lena Sands outfits the cast in modern yet still time-ambiguous fashions that fit the show. Sound-wise, sound designer Cricket Myers envelopes the small theater with realistic surround effects while musical director Marc Macalintal leads the in-house band with rhythmic precision, but, admittedly, their undisclosed location somewhere upstage behind the main set made the musical accompaniment sound slightly muffled and tinny (at one point, my friend and I wondered during intermission whether the production used pre-recorded music). Luckily, it didn't at all detract from the power and purpose of this remarkably enjoyable musical.
On a personal note... Perhaps I'm slightly biased, but I have to admit that EWP's production burrowed itself into me unlike any other "NEXT TO NORMAL" productions I've ever experienced before—particularly because I am seeing a story re-imagined with faces that look like me and my family. Let me tell you... the idea of one connecting with the material is a real and very powerful thing. To see this story come to life—which I have only ever seen in productions that feature all-Caucasian casts—truly affected me much more in this iteration, particularly in relation to my own demons of depression and anxiety, subjects that are, in my mind, not too frequently explored in fictional stories within the Asian community.
Speaking from personal experience, the subject of mental health is hardly discussed in my own Asian-American community, let alone my more specific Filipino family. The idea of going to a psychiatrist, even, is seen (at least in my immediate family) as a sign of utter weakness—and, in a broader sense, seen as an unnecessary Western phenomenon that has no place in the day-to-day coping mechanisms of Eastern cultures. For my family, someone sad is just someone with the blues, and therefore doesn't need medical assistance. Mental illness can easily be dismissed as "acceptable eccentricity." So to see "NEXT TO NORMAL" depicted with an Asian-American cast—especially with one of the most remarkable, visceral lead performances I've seen this year thus far—is not only important and cathartic, but also, in a way, incredibly healing.
Coupled with the fact that I experienced the show during not only Asian-American Heritage Month but also Mental Health Awareness Month is a double-whammy of a coincidence. All of this, again, speaks to the universality of certain stories that transcend whatever racial slots they may have once occupied or not-so-blatantly specified.
Beautifully rendered and acted, EWP's "NEXT TO NORMAL" is one of the most impressive and important regional productions of this notable musical you will ever experience. No matter what your racial or ethnic background, this production will sear its way into you, too.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the East West Players production of NEXT TO NORMAL by Michael Lamont.
The East West Players production of '"NEXT TO NORMAL" directed by Nancy Keystone continues through June 11, 2017. Regular performances run Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets available by calling (213) 625-7000 or online at www.eastwestplayers.org.