'Sick' musical beats the odds

Can mental illness be turned into a musical with a patient singing and dancing about how she's, well, crazy?

Yes, and very successfully too. So successful, in fact, that the musical earned 11 Tony Award nominations and won three, and nabbed the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama too.

Called Next To Normal, it is now set to entertain audiences here with its Singapore premiere which stars West End actress Sally Ann Triplett alongside local stage actor Adrian Pang.

Triplett, who's earned acclaim as the lead in almost every major musical from Chicago to Cats to Anything Goes, plays a woman with bipolar disorder and schizophrenic hallucinations.

When her character decides to go off medication, her home life is upended as her husband (Pang), daughter (Julia Abueva) and son (Nathan Hartono) struggle to cope with her wild mood swings.

Triplett, who has never acted in Asia before, was recommended to Pang and his wife Tracie, the musical's director, by a friend of theirs. Tracie Pang had previously directed successful runs of musicals The Full Monty and Spring Awakening.

When the Pangs contacted Triplett, she almost immediately said yes. She recalls: "I know the musical because four years ago my son came home from college with a CD and said: 'Mum, listen to these songs. Everyone's playing them in school.' "

The songs turned out to be Hey, I'm Alive and I Miss The Mountains, three of the best songs on the Next To Normal soundtrack. (Incidentally, Triplett's son Max Milner has since become a star in his own right after appearing in last year's UK version of reality-singing contest The Voice.)

Playing the role of a mental patient, however, is no walk in the park. Triplett calls it "one of the toughest I've done".

For research, she and the cast met two patients from the Institute of Mental Health, as well as a caregiver who's been caring for her mother for several years.

Adrian Pang says: "The condition is pretty harrowing because the mood swings are so unpredictable. The caregivers are constantly on edge trying to catch them when they fall or when they're going wild. No one really comprehends why they have these highs and lows. So the caregivers essentially have to be the rock for these patients."

Pang's role of the husband is essentially that.

Meanwhile, Hartono, who plays the son, can't wait to belt out the songs on stage. The regular star of musicals describes the soundtrack as a "fascinating mix of everything from rock to pop to country and blue grass . . . The music is almost non-stop and we'll be singing all the time".

Next To Normal almost guarantees an experience that's anything but normal.

Next To Normal plays at Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building, from Sept 5 to 22. Tuesdays to Fridays, 8pm, and weekends, 3 and 8pm. Tickets from $30 to $88 available at Sistic.

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