“We are still hunting for a gurney” was one of the first things that Out of the Box Theatre Company founder, director, and sometime leading actress Samantha Eve said to me when we met to discuss Next to Normal, which opens on Thursday, May 2. “It’s always something different. With each play, there’s some strange new challenge. In Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, it was the stage blood — it stung your skin. With this show, right now, it’s the gurney.”
But wait a minute — a gurney? What kind of show is this? Appropriately enough for a musical about a bipolar woman and her family, there’s more than one answer. From one angle, Next to Normal is a big fat Broadway hit, circa 2009. It won three Tony Awards, including Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Alice Ripley, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, thus becoming the first musical to receive that honor since RENT. However, viewed in another way, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s show is only the most recent manifestation of a long and somewhat tortured engagement with some volatile subject matter.
What began as a satirical 10-minute sketch about a woman undergoing electroshock therapy morphed through a series of workshops into a full-blown musical comedy that mocked the medical profession’s handling of mental illness, but from there, things went off course. Initial audiences had a hard time reconciling broad humor and production numbers with the emotions at the core of the story, which are those of a family in which the mother is unsuccessfully battling bipolar disorder. Discouraged by the sense of disconnect with the audience engendered by the show’s satirical elements, the duo rewrote Feeling Electric (the original title) as Next to Normal, in the process dropping many of the old songs and adding some new ones. The resulting focus, which eschews satire in favor of a more intimate kind of irony, is what made the show such a success.
For Eve and her cast, Next to Normal represents the exact kind of musical theater that they do best. “You could say that it’s rock music, but it’s not really a ‘rock musical’ in the way that some other shows are,” she said. This means that, like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, John & Jen, or Spring Awakening before that, it ought to be a great fit for this group. Deborah Bertling, who was also in Spring Awakening, will play Diana Goodman, which means that there will be a seriously experienced singer/actress in the central role. With Taylor Courtney as her daughter, Natalie, Matthew Wiedle as her husband, Dan, and Connor Gould as her son, Gabe, expect Bertling’s big voice to soar in this almost unbearably vulnerable role.
“When she hallucinates,” said Eve, referring to the Diana character, “the audience doesn’t always know.” At the beginning of Act II, when Diana undergoes electroshock, her daughter, Natalie, sings a song called “Wish I Were Here” about the thrill of drinking too much cough syrup. It’s through these kinds of juxtapositions that Next to Normal weaves its tapestry of feelings and reactions into a finely nuanced group portrait of a family united in pain and longing.
But don’t expect a downer. Eve assured me that the show is “not completely negative, and the ending is hopeful. It’s a drama with elements of comedy, and those funny moments are part of what pulls you through”: an excellent summary not only of what Next to Normal has to offer, but also of what the show, its creators, and its characters have all had to do.
Next to Normal shows Thursday, May 2-Sunday, May 12, at Center Stage Theater in Paseo Nuevo. For tickets and information, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.