Next to Normal: Captivating Contemporary Musical Strips Away the Stigma Associated with Mental Illness

Pit & Balcony Presents Regional Premier May 8-10 & 15-17th

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 809   By: Robert E Martin

30th April, 2015     0

Without doubt stigmas associated with mental illness can create problems within a family that can easily detour into the broader context of any given community, creating a sense of hopelessness that often tests the fragile fabric of a family that more often than not stems from a lack of understanding.

It is within this context that Pit & Balcony proudly presents Next to Normal to close out their 2015 season, which is their third presentation of a contemporary American musical that redefines the parameters of musical theatre; and marks yet another regional premier that began with last years presentation of Spring Awakening and continued earlier this year with their production of Hands on a Hardbody.

Next to Normal is a rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt that concerns a mother who struggles with worsening bipolar disorder and the effect that her illness and the attempts to alleviate it have upon her family. Opening the prism even wider, this work also addresses such issues as grieving a loss, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry, and the many unturned stones that lay upon the underbelly of suburban life.

After receiving several workshop performances before it debuted Off-Broadway in 2008, the musical opened on Broadway in 2009 and was nominated for eleven 2009 Tony Awards, securing three wins for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming just the eighth musical in history to receive such an honor.

Directed by Midland’s Laura Bringham and featuring the Musical Direction of Loren Kranz, the regional premier of this landmark musical endeavor will run at Pit & Balcony from May 8-10th and May 15-17th.

“If you’re talking about contemporary musicals this is the musical,” enthuses Bringham. “It’s very real and about those situations we don’t always talk about.  We don’t always talk about it when somebody has a mental disorder or a miscarriage. These are important things and we often don’t talk about them because it’s a taboo discussion – what the inner workings are for a family or what the situations are like for somebody that has a mental condition and the trauma that it sets off.”

“But apart from the seriousness of the subject matter, the music for Next to Normal is some of the most beautifully created work, with a score that is both touching and driving and rocking that pushes through the barriers in innovative ways. Next to Normal is almost fully sung and operatic in a way – almost everything is underscored and the score is three times the size of the actual script.”

While Bringham estimates that she has involved herself with anywhere from ten to fifteen plays, more often as an actor than a director, she also confesses an acute fondness for this production.   “It’s been awhile since I’ve directed a musical and frankly, I prefer to do smaller cast shows. Most musicals involve large productions and much bigger casts, but I honestly prefer shows that have realism because as a Director I like to rip away the extra fluff and get right to the heart of things.”

“Given that Next to Normal features a relatively small cast for a musical, my goal is to get the cast to work against acting – initially they want to act the part and I tell them, ‘Don’t act’. These are real people having real conversations, so don’t act them out – address your partner one-on-one and find your partner. This play is so meaty that I feel this approach works best.”

With a cast that consists of Megan Eager portraying the role of Diana, William Lockhart playing Diana’s son, Matthew Schramm filling the role of Diana’s husband, and Diana’s daughter portrayed by Danessa Hellus, the cast is rounded out by Henry Wakie playing dual roles of Henry and Dr. Fine, and Randy Robinson portraying Dr. Madden.

“It’s interesting because this is one of eight musicals in the history of American Theatre that have won a Pulitzer Prize; and originally it wasn’t one of the original three to be voted on by judges. The judges didn’t vote on any of the three musicals presented, so the jury that picked it pulled it into the fold. Usually the jury will pull Broadway musicals in for consideration and this began as an Off-Broadway show.”

In framing the setting of her small yet robust cast, Bringham says her pivotal goal was to strip everything down. “Right from the beginning the set is very elemental. The husband and wife in this play met in architectural school, so I wanted everything to be very streamlined and stripped down to the basics so it looks like something you would see in an architectural magazine as opposed to a home. Visually we tear the walls down right from the beginning and I want the audience to be able to see a house this couple built together and also be able to see how it functions.”

“The lead character talks about how she sees the world in whites and blacks and shades of grey, so a lot of the set mirrors that,” continues Bringham.  “When color pops out it will have meaning, so I’m also trying to bring all of that into focus. I like everything to be based in something.  For each of the rooms I denote what they are by a single set piece, so we have the barest outline of a house.”

With thirty to thirty-five people showing up for auditions, Laura says that even though the core topics of Next to Normal are serious, the play is nonetheless quite humorous. “The lead character has quite a wicked sense of humor with many good one-liners, so she throws different shards out there. The daughter and the guy she ends up dating are kind of the true romance of the show. He’s a steadfast guy, so the play if full of lots of humor but definitely contains some darker stuff and heavier issues.”

Given the nuanced nature of the script, Laura says the most challenging component for her as a director is “getting people to deal with each other and forget about the audience. So much of musical theatre involves an element of spectacle, but this play is basically intense and very real conversations put to music.”

Although Next to Normal is a musical, there isn’t much dancing involved. “But there is lots of movement,” notes Laura. “We spent two-and-a-half hours cleaning up the opening the other day. There’s lots of forward motion in the show and the production moves forward. People will not be looking at their watches because the whole thing feels like its about to attack you, yet you can’t ever go away from this musical without singing from it. I think one of the biggest draws to this work is that the music is so cool – some of it is rock ‘n roll, but there are plenty of breathtaking mixtures of material worked into the fabric.”

As an ancillary feature Pit & Balcony will also be featuring an art exhibition by Suzie Reid, who has dealt with bipolar disease for several years. “We’ll feature an artist reception on May 1st and this fits in nicely seeing as the month of May is also National Mental Health Month,” notes P&B Executive Director Martha Humphreys. “The reception will run from 5-7 PM and people will have a chance to meet the artist, who creates who creates some very moving work.”

“I also would like to thank HealthSource Saginaw for being our primary underwriter for this show, along with Grid Services, Saginaw County Mental Health Authority and St. Mary’s for their sponsorships,” adds Humphreys.

“This is such an acclaimed show with such an amazingly beautiful yet honest portrayal of the dynamics within a family dealing with someone suffering from mental illness,” she continues.  “I’m proud that Pit & Balcony chose to stage a place like Next to Normal. Too many times the choice of a subject with pain and suffering is too dark, but Next to Normal has flashes of brilliant humor throughout that keeps the context relevant. It’s a very well balanced play and the music is as powerful as the story it tells.”

“My hope is that this production helps get rid of the stigma of mental illness,” continues Martha. “Interestingly enough, Saginaw’s own Brian D’Arcy James opened in the original production of Next to Normal on Off-Broadway; and I feel it’s simply a perfect blend between seriousness and levity.”

“This production allows us to open up a dialogue about mental illness and my hope is that those who see this extraordinary show will walk away with a sense of empathy for those who suffer from any form of mental illness, knowing there’s always help available and that no one should be stigmatized by it.”

 This is the play I’ve been waiting for all season and it’s not going to be an easy play. It’s so beautifully written and I’ve been excited all year for this show, because as we’ve discussed in the past, theatre is not to just entertain but to reach out and make an impact upon the community.”

“This show is a way for us to do that.”

Pit & Balcony’s production of the Pulitzer Prize Winning musical Next to Normal will run from May 8-10 and 15-17th. P&B is located at 805 N. Hamilton St. in Saginaw. For tickets you can phone 989-754-6587 or order online at


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