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'Next to Normal' brings updated music, serious vibe to Heritage Theatre Festival mix

July 19, 2013


July 19--When Robert Chapel was planning this season's lineup for Heritage Theatre Festival, he wanted it to be balanced and offer something for nearly every taste.

With that in mind, the producing artistic director of the festival penciled in "Annie Get Your Gun," because it's an excellent show for families. Then he decided on "The Marvelous Wonderettes" and "Tuna Does Vegas" for light, fun entertainment to provide plenty of laughs.

Then Chapel selected "Red," because he wanted a serious play in the mix. And to close out the 2013 season, he decided on "Next to Normal," because he wanted to present a thought-provoking play that could educate as well as entertain.

"Next to Normal" opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the University of Virginia's Culbreth Theatre. The Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical centers on a woman trying to lead a normal life while struggling with bipolar disorder.

As the woman's symptoms worsen, her entire family is drawn into her ordeal. Subjects of grief, loss, suicide and modern medicine are addressed as she battles for her sanity.

"It's a wonderful, powerful piece," Chapel said of the musical he is directing. "When I saw it on Broadway, I was very moved by it.

"The arc of the show is how this woman, Diana, lives with this very difficult disease. It's a serious musical, almost an opera, because there's much more music than normal in the show.

"There are 30 songs, some of which are just gorgeous folk-rock pieces, and others are real hard-driving. This means that everyone in the cast has to be phenomenal singers as well as actors --and they are."

Chapel said the cast members of "Next to Normal" are among the best actors he has ever worked with during his long career in theater. Catherine Ogden, who portrays Diana, was in the festival's production of "Ragtime" some years ago, as well as "Oliver!" and "Damn Yankees."

Ross Wheeler plays Diana's husband, Dan. Also in the cast are Kyle Downing, Jonathan Coarsey and Paige Herschell. Although the actors, all of whom come from out of town, had a short rehearsal period, Chapel said they have bonded deeply.

"The evolution of this production has turned out to be a great collaboration," Chapel said. "They are not afraid to say, 'Hey, what about this?' And I am not afraid to say, 'That's a good idea.'

"It has been a really positive growing experience in terms of the production's process."

Tom Kitt wrote the music for "Next to Normal," and Brian Yorkey penned the book and lyrics. It made its debut in an Off-Broadway production in 2008, winning the Outer Critics' Circle Award for Outstanding Score.

After opening on Broadway in April 2009, it won Tony Awards for best original score, best orchestration and best performance by a leading actress in a musical. The following year, it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making it only the eighth musical to ever do so.

One of the reasons the Pulitzer Board cited for making the rare presentation was because the play "expands the scope of subject matter for musicals." Chapel said the musical is an example of a new trend in the genre.

"The subject matter for some shows these days is getting a little darker and a little more thought-provoking than the musicals of the 1950s, '60s and '70s," Chapel said. "I think one of the reasons for this is because rock music is becoming an acceptable form for the Broadway stage, which hasn't been the case before.

"Last year, for the [UVa] drama department, we did the rock musical "Spring Awakening," which is about sexual repression of young people that is set in 1891 Germany. When it was on Broadway, it won the Tony Award for musicals.

"The Andrew Jackson show ["Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"] that was just on Broadway was a rock show that was really quite serious. So more and more of these are cropping up."

Seeing a family being caught up in the maelstrom of a loved one's mental illness can be difficult to watch at times. But the light of love, hope and family unity keeps the darkness from becoming absolute.

"I really hope that Charlottesville comes out and gives this show a chance," Chapel said. "I know our audiences are prone to want to see lighter entertainment in the summer.

"But I think people will find this incredibly moving and very worthwhile. The play delves deeply and clearly into what people who have bipolar disorder are going through.

"I'm told that more than five million people in the United States are suffering from this, and apparently there are many other people who have it and aren't being treated at all."

Following the evening performance of "Next to Normal" on Aug. 1, a talk-back session with the cast and mental health professionals from Region Ten will be held. There is no additional charge for this event.

"I think people will find this to be not only a very thought-provoking evening, but also, in its own way, a very entertaining evening as well," Chapel said of "Next to Normal."

"I think it's going to be a very moving production, and I am really happy with where we are going with it."

The rock musical "Next to Normal" opens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Culbreth Theatre. It also will be presented at 7:30 p.m. July 26, 27, 30 and 31 and Aug. 1, 2 and 3. There also will be a 2 p.m. matinee on Aug. 3.

Tickets are $40 for adults, $35 seniors and UVa faculty, staff and alumni, and $20 for students. Tickets are available at the UVa box office located in the lobby of the drama building, online at or by telephone at 924-3376.

"Next to Normal"

Heritage Theatre Festival

7:30 p.m. Thursday; runs through Aug. 3

Culbreth Theatre

$40, $35 and $20


For mature audiences


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