News Column

'Next to Normal's' Valley premiere is at Civic

May 2, 2013


May 02--Mental illness is not a topic frequently dealt with in Broadway musicals.

When "Next To Normal" debuted on Broadway in 2009, it confronted serious issues, including bipolar disorder, suicide, depression and electroshock therapy, all in the framework of a powerful rock music score.

Civic Theatre will give "Next To Normal" its Lehigh Valley premiere Friday through May 19 at the 19th Street Theatre in Allentown.

The show was nominated for 11 Tony awards and won three, and then became only the eighth musical in history to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The Pulitzer Board said the show that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family "expands the scope of subject matter for musicals."

"This is a very realistic portrayal of what people go through with mental illness," says Civic Artistic Director William Sanders. "There is no easy diagnosis. It's not like other diseases where you're really sure what's going on. It's a lot of trial and error. This has been a different play to work on. It can be very depressing, but a lot of it is funny because of the family dynamics. At the end it is a little ambiguous but there is a feeling of hope."

The intense, cathartic musical tells the story of Diana Goodman, a seemingly normal suburban wife and mother, who, following a family tragedy, has struggled with bipolar disorder and hallucinations for 16 years. Diana struggles to keep her family together and be as normal as possible.

"This is such a nebulous, difficult world to negotiate," Sander says. "There are no real answers. It's not like mending a bone. The events that shape our lives can, and do, alter the definition of what 'normal' is for us."

He says one of the cool things in the musical is that at first Diana's life does seem normal, but then the audience begins to realize something isn't quite right.

"You ask, What is the illness, is it due to a traumatic event and can she move past it, or is it genetic?" he says. "The nature of mental illness is ambiguous. It's evocative of something needing to see the light. Regardless of the journey, you have to look for something that's good."

"Next to Normal" grew from a 10-minute-long piece called "Feeling Electric" that Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt wrote as a final project for the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. The duo was inspired by a "Dateline NBC" segment about electroconvulsive therapy, formerly known as electroshock. Yorkey, who wrote the book, and Kitt, who wrote the music, expanded it into a full-length show.

Sanders says he likes to stage shows that have never been done in the Lehigh Valley.

More than 80 people auditioned for a cast of six. Sanders said casting was tough and he ended up with three actors making their Civic Theatre debuts.

One is 18-year-old Kallie Linder, who plays Diana's teen daughter Natalie. She is a senior at Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts.

Sanders says he was impressed with Linder's "sense of irony," as well as her "amazing voice and acting skills."

"It's a difficult role," he says, noting she nailed the "sarcastic mother and daughter" interplay with Janis Greim as Diana. Greim is also making her Civic debut.

Sanders says he was initially nervous casting someone he had never worked with in such a demanding role, but says Greim has a "fantastic voice and is physically really right for the part."

The third new face is Brian Foley, playing the dual roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden.

The other cast members are Michael Traupman, who plays Diana's husband Dan; Matthew Meckes, who plays Gabe, and Will Morris as Henry.

The set by Jason Sherwood is minimalist. Sanders says he feels too much scenery weighs down a musical.

"The story moves to a lot of locations but it's really about the family and being grounded in the house around the table," Sanders says.

The pop-rock score includes more than 30 songs that go from bluegrass and rockabilly to Celtic rock.

"It has a great score," Sanders says. "It's very much in the vein of 'Rent,' and spans a lot of styles."

Civic also will host a talk with professionals from The National Alliance on Mental Illness -- Lehigh Valley after the show May 9. A panel includes Laurence Karper, Lehigh Valley Health Network's vice chairman of inpatient psychiatry; retired psychologist Dennis Geiger, and psychologist Peter Langman, former clinical director of KidsPeace.

Ryan Kloss is the production stage manager. Will Morris is lighting and costume designer.

-- "Next to Normal" 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, May 10, 11, 17 and 18; 7 p.m. May 9 and 2 p.m. Sunday and May 19, 19th Street Theatre, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown. Tickets are $20-$31. 610-432-8943,

Broadway at the State

"Dreamgirls," the Broadway musical that drew inspiration from the real-life story of the 1960s-era girl groups, comes to the State Theatre on Friday with a new high-tech production.

The musical became a hit movie and made a star of "American Idol" contestant Jennifer Hudson. It tells the story of "The Dreams," an up-and-coming Motown singing group inspired by the career of Diana Ross and The Supremes, as the members experience the triumphs and difficulties of trying to hit it big in the music industry.

Winner of six Tony Awards and two Grammy Awards, "Dreamgirls" premiered on Broadway in 1981. The movie, which also starred Beyonce, opened in 2006.

The score features hits that include "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," "One Night Only" and "Listen."

The stage production features multiple video screens that figure prominently in the story, which were created by Howard Werner, video designer on Broadway's "Spider-Man."

The show is directed by Broadway's Bobby Longbottom and includes additional choreography by Shane Sparks of "So You Think You Can Dance." Scenery, costumes and lighting are designed by the Tony Award-winning team of Robin Wagner, William Ivey Long and Ken Billington.

-- "Dreamgirls," 7:30 p.m. Friday, State Theatre, 453 Northampton St., Easton. Tickets: $55 and $60. 610-252-3132,

Cast members of the hit show "Jersey Boys" have come together to form "Under The Streetlamp," a vocal group that performs classic hits from the American radio songbook. The quartet entertains with Doo-Wop, Motown, old-time rock 'n' roll and songs from The Drifters, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Four Seasons and others. It performs Saturday night at the State Theatre.

Michael Cunio, Michael Ingersoll, Chris Jones and Shonn Wiley got together after starring in the Tony-winning Broadway musical bio based on The Four Seasons. After forming "Under the Streetlamp" in Chicago in 2010, the group quickly earned a devoted following. It released a concert CD/DVD titled "Under The Streetlamp: Live!" in 2012 and the show became a staple of PBS pledge drives across the country. The group plans to film a second PBS special in September during its tour.

The group sings classic songs, including Dion and The Belmonts' "I Wonder Why," The Chords' "Sh-Boom," The Drifters' "Save The Last Dance For Me," The Beach Boys' "I Get Around," The Temptations' "Get Ready," The Turtles' "Happy Together," and The Four Seasons' "Workin' My Way Back To You."

"Its music that was largely created in urban settings like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit," Wiley says. "People lived in small, tight quarters, and when it got too hot in summer, they'd congregate on the streets to play dominos or stickball, or gather under a streetlamp to sing."

The quartet is joined by a seven-piece band that features musicians who played with Frank Sinatra and Frankie Valli.

Wiley says he also will do a little tap dancing to "When You're Smiling," written by Al Jolson.

"There's something unique about the music that came out of the '60s period," Cunio says. "Not many young people are doing this music live, and we're trying to make sure it doesn't stop with our generation. We've found that 18-year-olds have just as much fun at our shows as their grandparents. This music exists in everyone's consciousness unlike any other genre, and we keep that in mind and pay respect to it."

-- "Under the Streetlamp," 8 p.m. Saturday, State Theatre, Easton. Tickets: $35, $45. 610-252-3132,



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