Understanding ‘Next to Normal,’ a musical about mental illness
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
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.
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.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 10, 2011.