New Boston Company Tackles ’Next to Normal’
Of recent musicals, few pack the emotional wallop of "Next to Normal," the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning show about a woman’s struggle with her bi-polar diagnosis and its effect on her family.
That it proved to be a hit only showed that audiences were willing to embrace musical theater that isn’t just spectacle and fluff. "Next to Normal" dared to be different, and did so with a pulsating rock score (music by Tom Kitt; lyrics by Brian Yorkey, who also wrote the book) that amplified the dark journey of Diana, the show’s suburban housewife haunted by an incident from the early days of her marriage. How her past intrudes on her present drives this lean, compelling narrative.
The show ran for 733 performances on Broadway, making back its investment in a year’s time. It also won Tony Awards for its lead actress (Alice Ripley), as well as Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations. Ripley toured with the show to 16 U.S. cities. It also has become one of the more frequently performed shows in regional theaters. Here in Boston the SpeakEasy Stage Company staged it last year.
Now the Back Bay Repertory Theater - one of the city’s newest theater troupes - is bringing "Next to Normal" to a Boston stage. This time a space - the theater at the rear of Club Café - that is usually the home of drag shows and stand-up. The production continues for four more performances: October 19 - 21. (Click here for more information). The cast includes Janet Ferreri as Diana, Nicholas Foster as Gabe, Tim Otte as Dan, Kara Nelson as Natalie, Sean Crosley as Henry and Steven Kosakow as Dr. Fine & Dr. Madden.
EDGE spoke to Justin McCoubry, the artistic director of the company who also staged this production (with musical direction by Joshua Ziemann) about bringing this ambitious project to life in such a venue usually not associated with more conventional theatrical fare.
EDGE: What is the Back Bay Repertory Company?
Justin McCoubry: The Back Bay Repertory Theater company was formed in 2012, and focuses on bringing contemporary and new theater works to the Boston theater scene.
EDGE: How did it come about?
Justin McCoubry: I have been looking to produce and direct theater pieces that are not traditionally done, or that are newly released - and this company provides the Boston community with the opportunity to experience these unique theater experiences.
EDGE: Do you have a mission?
Justin McCoubry: Our mission is to do just that - bring new and contemporary work to the Boston theater scene.
EDGE: "Next to Normal" is not only emotionally challenging, but a very technical show. Why choose such a complex show to do in a space more suited for cabaret and stand-up?
Justin McCoubry: As one of our goals - we want to present compelling and contemporary work in new ways. I wanted to show that we could take a complicated, difficult piece and present it in an intimate and unique way. This was a true to test to see if the venue could handle it and push the boundaries of what people would expect.
An intimate approach
EDGE: Does the intimacy of the space make the musical more immediate to the audience?
Justin McCoubry: Exactly! That was our hope - that with the audience so close - and the characters raw emotions and interactions so accessible, the audience feels everything, sees everything and is a part of their world. This story begs to be done in a black-box venue, and bringing the audience right up close takes the story to a whole new level.
EDGE: On Broadway, the production was pretty high-tech with a tiered set and projections. When it was done at the SpeakEasy last year, there was extensive use of projections. How do you strip down those elements?
Justin McCoubry: We do strip it down pretty bare - the set and effects are minimal, and the lighting is functional as opposed to artistic. Our production is truly about the characters, the score and the audience - and the relationship between the three. It was fairly easy - my cast takes the audience in and makes them forget about anything they might be missing technically.
EDGE: What drew you to the show?
Justin McCoubry: Ever since seeing the production on Broadway, I have been in love with it. It is a beautiful score, with amazing characters, a brilliant story and something theater audiences don’t see often - its just a totally different type of musical. It’s also a bit misleading - you think, a musical about mental illness? How? That sounds awful, or at the very least - depressing - but its stunning, uplifting and full of hope.
EDGE: What makes "Next to Normal" such a powerful musical?
Justin McCoubry: There is not a theater piece out there like it - a contemporary rock musical about mental illness? Who knew it could be so beautiful? These characters are complicated and real - its a relatable musical - in fact, audience members have already approached us saying how much the show meant to them as they have lived some of the themes developed in the show.
EDGE: Diana, the musical’s protagonist, is bi-polar. And her story isn’t typical musical fare. Why do you think the musical has been such a success?
Justin McCoubry: I think that exactly is the reason - she is not your expected musical theater heroine. None of the characters really have that standard musical theater arch or feel. They are real people - and real stories. The show attacks and explores issues that haven’t been looked in theater - it’s innovative.
EDGE: This is a rock musical and can be very loud. How to you balance the musical elements considering the intimacy of the space?
Justin McCoubry: This has also been a huge challenge for us - we do our best with microphones and having the band be really conscious of their volume. The majority of the show is sung, so we have to ensure the audience can hear everything - it’s been a huge challenge. We hope between the actors being amplified and projecting, and really trying to have the band be the support as opposed to overpowering - we find a really great balanced sound.
EDGE: What musical accompaniment do you have - a band similar to original?
Justin McCoubry: We have the recommended 6 piece orchestra - piano, electric guitar, bass, drum, cello and violin. The strings were a must-have for me - they add so much to the show.
EDGE: What’s next for the Back Bay Repertory Company?
Justin McCoubry: We are looking at some similar contemporary style musicals - and now that we understand the space a bit better, looking at musicals that require less technical support and would fit the space.
EDGE: How has the response been to the company’s work thus far?
Justin McCoubry: We have been really lucky to have an amazingly positive response, and audience members who have been blown away by this brilliant cast and show. We’ve had audiences laughing, crying and even raising their fists to the sky as Diana belted her powerful chorus of "I Miss The Mountains." This cast and unique, intimate artistic vision will surprise you - and that’s what we want.
Remaining performances of "Next to Normal" by the Back Bay Repertory Theater are October 19 at 7pm; October 20 at 2 and 7pm; and October 21 at 2 pm at Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Club Café website.