Bi-polar bearable

 

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SHOCK AND AWE | Stars Gary Floyd, left, and Patty Breckenridge, right, have both worked on hit productions with director Michael Serrecchia, but for ‘Next to Normal,’ they really brought their A-game. (Photo by Mike Morgan)

Understanding ‘Next to Normal,’ a musical about mental illness

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Patty Breckenridge is entirely aware of the cliché that having a child changes your life. But she can’t avoid it.

Earlier this year, Breckenridge and her partner Carrie became mommies to son Logan, around the same time she changed jobs. Pursuing acting opportunities would have to take a backseat for a while.

And then she heard that Uptown Players was producing Next to Normal. And she made an exception.

“I put all my eggs in one basket and said, ‘This is it; this is the one show I will be able to do for a while [now that I am a mother],’” Breckenridge says. “My wife has been so supportive; Carrie is absolutely my hero.”

Especially since she is a new mom, tackling this role — that of a bi-polar woman coping with deep issues related to her son — struck unnervingly close to home.

“I’ve never done as much work for a role in my life,” she says. “When my brother, and my other friends, saw this on Broadway, they said, ‘This was meant for you.’”

It may have impressed her friends, but one person who wasn’t initially convinced was the show’s director, Michael Serrecchia.

“My first reaction [when I saw a scene performed on the Tony Awards] was, ‘I don’t like it,’” he says with an ironic smile. “Who would watch that?”

But Serrecchia, who teaches acting and voice in town, said his students began to convince him of its appeal; before long, he was “feeling addicted to the score.”

The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, Next to Normal was an unlikely hit and has become a cult favorite, winning a Tony Award for its rock-opera score about the dark, often taboo topic of mental illness. It closed in January.

This is the second consecutive Pulitzer winner they have mounted (following The Young Man from Atlanta), and this marks the first production of the show outside of New York or the recently started national tour. It’s a coup for the company that only last season moved to the bigger digs of the historic Kalita Humphreys Theater.

Next to Normal fits with our mission statement of tolerance and dignity,” says company co-founder Jeff Rane. “And the family issues will be familiar to our audience.” It has sold so well, additional performances have already been added.

That puts the pressure on Breckenridge, Gary Floyd (who plays her husband) and Serrecchia to do it justice. None of them saw the Broadway production, nor do they have personal experience with bi-polar disorder. At least, they didn’t think so.

“I didn’t realize how many people I know who do suffer from it until they found out I was directing it,” Serrecchia says. “I’d say maybe a dozen people have called me.”

To be as accurate and respectful of the material as possible, Serrecchia arranged for a woman, whose life closely mirrors Breckenridge’s character Diane, to speak to the cast about what mental illness is like from the inside out.

“She made me really want to do it justice,” Breckenridge says. “We’re all bringing our A-game.”

That won’t be easy. The sung-through score is the equivalent of “vocal aerobics,” as Serrecchia puts it.

“As a singer, you have to pace yourself,” says Floyd. But it’s also necessary to convey the intense emotions of the songs. Floyd says the cue he was given to understand mental illness is that it is “like walking through cotton candy.”

Serrecchia also wanted to give the audience visual cues to the psychology of the characters. Andy Redmon’s set, a multi-story behemoth, qualifies as one of Uptown’s most ambitious ever.

“The whole play is in 2s,” he says. “There’s all this doubling, these mirror images, these layers. I wanted everything parallel. So you have all these intersecting stairs to show each transition.”

For the cast and crew, just doing a show like this is a major transition itself into the big leagues.

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 10, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Dan Ramos to resign Thursday morning?

Dan Ramos

The mainstream media is finally starting to pick up on the story of Dan Ramos, the chairman of the Bexar County Democratic Party who thinks gays are like very sinister Nazi termites with polio legs who are not natural but can’t be swept under the rug — so you might as well seek their endorsement! (This whole thing just goes to show that mental illness is totally nonpartisan.) The ABC affiliate in San Antonio reports tonight that Ramos will hold a press conference at his office Thursday morning, but it’s unclear what for. We’re sure Democrats all over the state — and maybe even some Republicans — are hoping Ramos will come to his senses and heed the many calls for his resignation, but don’t bet the farm on it. A spokesman for the Bexar County Democratic Party’s steering committee said of Ramos, “He’s been in the trenches for a long time and he’s not going to go without a fight.”

 

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Sarah Palin, Westboro Baptist Church, The Advocate’s gayest cities

1. Sarah Palin released a video statement (above) this morning in response to the Tucson shooting, saying her decision to put rifle crosshairs on a map over Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ district had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the incident at all. How could it have, right? But why so defensive then? And what better way for Palin to address a shooting that targeted Giffords, who’s Jewish, than by using an anti-semitic metaphor? Palin says those who link the tragedy to her violent rhetoric are committing “blood libel” — which refers to an accusation from the Middle Ages that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood to make matzoh for Passover. Palin is right, this incident was more about mental illness than rhetoric — until you consider the fact that the ones spewing the rhetoric are mentally ill. (Politico)

2. The governor of Arizona signed emergency legislation to prohibit Westboro Baptist Church from picketing within 300 feet of the funeral for a 9-year-old girl who was killed in the Tucson shooting. The legislation was initiated by openly gay State Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Tucson, who said this: “I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment and the bottom line is this, Fred Phelps and his group of people can still spew their hate if they want. They just don’t get to do it close to the families that are grieving. They have to be farther away.” (ABC 15)

3. The Advocate lists Minneapolis as the gayest city in America, and Texas is shut out of the top 15. Have we mentioned that The Advocate sucks?

—  John Wright

Gay OKC pioneer Arnold Smith remembered

Arnold “Arna Lee” Smith, who owned a series of gay bars in Oklahoma City dating back to the 1960s, died Oct. 31 at 83, according to the Metro Star:

During the early 1960s America and Oklahoma were quite different, where being gay was officially still a mental illness, sodomy laws were still in the books, and gay rights (let alone marriage) weren’t even discussed. Police raids on gay bars were common, albeit on dubious pretexts and very selective law enforcement, much facilitated when most people victimized by these tactics were either afraid and/or ashamed to fight back. But even in this dark scenario Arnold’s first club, Lee’s Lounge which opened in the mid 1960s in the Paseo District, was a bright spot for the GLBT community that refused to back down. Although the club endured relentless police harassment, the club proudly kept going. On many occasions when he was arrested along with his customers, he would bail himself and his customers out and re-open the bar the same night. His drag persona, Arna Lee, became famous during this time, accompanied by his outrageously fun costumes and tap dancing with a campy wit to match. During this time he became a Drag Mother to many budding female impersonators, a passion that spanned over 40 years.

—  John Wright

In case you missed it, This American Life examines APA's definition of homosexuality

Today (actually right now) on NPR, This American Life re-airs the episode “81 Words” looking at the American Psychiatric Association’s decision in 1973 to no longer consider homosexuality a mental illness. Or you can go here to catch the show in its entirety.

—  Rich Lopez