By Tara Bennett
In the years since Theatre Baton Rouge began showcasing musicals, it has presented some of the most beloved musicals of our time such as Mary Poppins, Annie, and Rent.
This year’s production of Next to Normal, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is a lesser-known musical, but the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a challenging and contemporary example of musical theatre.
“It’s really brave for Theatre Baton Rouge to be doing this kind of work,” said guest director Mace Archer. “Next to Normal is another one of these great contemporary stories that talk about things that we should all be talking about in a really beautiful, positive way.”
Next to Normal is a show that Archer had wanted to direct for some time now, and was thrilled when he received the call from TBR Artistic Director Jenny Ballard to direct the show for their Turner-Fischer City Series. Archer is a professional actor and director from Portland Oregon where he currently works as the artistic director for a two year training program.
The premise of Next to Normal focuses on a woman struggling to deal with bipolar disorder and the effect her condition has on her family.
“I think the heart of this play is much bigger than a lot of musical theatre shows,” said Archer. “Musical theatre in general sets out to entertain the audience, which is great. Next to Normal is incredibly entertaining, but incredibly insightful, far more dramatic than most musical theatre pieces. I like the honesty of it and the family dynamic in it.”
According to Archer, the show is a favorite among theater professionals because of the challenging material.
“I think the insight into the mental illness with the family is a key element in the play,” said Archer. “The thing that interested me more than anything though is the way the play deals with grief, which to me is at the core of everything. It triggers so much of the problems the family members have.”
The score is written in a contemporary rock style with minimal dialogue and is reflective of the theme of the show, not only in content but in format.
“Most musical theatre numbers are two, three, four, five minutes long,” said Archer. “This has numbers that are short as 60 to 90 seconds. They’re quick songs, which plays into that fracturing, splintering feeling of the play because the audience never gets to sit in a number and a feeling for too long before it shifts on them.”
Archer is pleased with his cast members, and their ability to put forth the material, which not only is different from traditional musical theatre, but the number of cast members in Next to Normal is also unique.
“A six person musical is very rare,” said Archer.
Marion Bienvenu portrays Diana, the mother.
“It’s a very challenging role because of the grief the mother is under and what it releases in her own psyche,” said Archer. “Marion’s done a great job. The play has all the guides the actor needs to reveal the role; it’s really well-written…The character is fascinating.”
Adding to the emotional intensity of the show is the set. Using the specs from the original Broadway production design, the set is a two-story structure that represents the rooms in a suburban home, doctors’ offices, a school, and several locations in a hospital. A lot of the action takes the characters to different locations simultaneously, which is reflective of the state of mind of Diana.
“It’s another example of that fracturing,” said Archer.
Next to Normal will run from August 7-16 with performances on Thursday-Saturday night and Sunday afternoons. Tickets are $28 for individuals, $20 for students and is recommended for mature audiences only. To purchase tickets, visit theatrebr.org.