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Theater Review: ‘Next to Normal’ in a New Cultural Context

A modern, South Asian reimagining of the 2008 musical

By Arts & Culture, Entertainment, Featured

The Cast of Next to Normal on stage includes Nina Jayashankar, Adrian Thornburg, Asha Grace, Arjun Shah, Michael J. Santos, and Joey Faggion. Photo by Nitya Mehrotra.

An innovative adaptation of the American rock musical, “Next to Normal” has reimagined the show within a South Asian context. Run by the production company Pop Up Productions, their inaugural show ran for two weeks at the South Asia Institute in downtown Chicago during May, receiving widespread praise. This courageous endeavor aimed to create trauma-informed stories for a South Asian audience, transforming the theater landscape into a more inclusive and representative space.

“Next to Normal” is a highly acclaimed, Tony Award-winning musical featuring a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt. The narrative revolves around a mother grappling with the escalating challenges of bipolar disorder and its impact on her family. The musical delves into themes of grief, depression, suicide, drug abuse, the ethics of contemporary psychiatry, and the hidden struggles of suburban life.

Pop Up Productions was founded when the director, Harshey Suri, saw the original musical ten years ago and was inspired to create a version that reflected her own family. Underrepresented voices are at the core of their ideology and company ethos, including the diverse team behind the set. She collaborated with her college friends, including creative director Nandini Mittal and Maxwell Fine, which led to the creation of the company. Their mission is to tell untold or marginalized stories through pop-up theatrical spaces in cities across the country.

The performance evokes many tears from the audience as Diana, played by Nina Jayashankar, brings her world of pain to life through her powerful voice. The story portrays a mother losing her mind while maintaining relationships with her family, a challenge that was beautifully executed by Jayashankar.

Nina Jayashankar gives an impeccable performance as a mother praying for her child’s safety. Photo by Nitya Mehrotra.

The casting was done with a conscious emphasis on actors who resonated with the play’s morals and cause, in addition to their vocal abilities. The husband, played by Adrian Thornburg, and the son, played by Arjun Shah, were impeccable singers who seemed perfectly at home on the well-designed set. The set creates an intimate atmosphere, making the audience feel as if they are in the living room, amidst a familial argument. The story resonates on a personal level, offering something for everyone. They managed to adapt the original play to the South Asian content by rewriting the identity of the stage of one of an immigrant household. The director drew from how much she resonated with the story, and implemented this transformation through set and costume design, integrating multiple languages, and making sure that the team behind the stage was as diverse as the cast.

The lead Nina Jayashankar and the director Hershey Kaur Suri posing after their opening show! Photo by Nitya Mehrotra.

The initial audience responses praised the courage it took to address trauma in a South Asian context. Almost every performance I attended was met with a meld of a standing ovation and tears. A particularly memorable element was the final performance, a matinee performed by the understudy cast. Nandini explained that their goal is to give voice to the underrepresented, and understudies often embody that. This dedicated night highlighted the understudies’ performances, receiving enthusiastic applause and showcasing the amazing work the whole team had put in.

Pop Up Production’s adaption of ‘Next to Normal’ brought together a diverse and creative community and built a passionate and supportive environment. They’re a production company to keep an eye on as they continue to develop shows in the future.

Nina Jayashankar and Michael J. Santos on stage depict the mood swings that are caused by Bipolar disorder. Photo by Nitya Mehrotra.

Nitya is a documentary filmmaker, animator, and social worker. https://www.nityamehrotra.com/
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