Strained family dynamics and gripping plot twists all wrapped into an American rock sequence — this is the unnerving yet uplifting musical Next to Normal. Written by Brian Yorkey and composed by Tom Kitt, this 2008 award-winning Broadway musical entertains audiences as it follows the highs and lows of a suburban family. This weekend, the USC Musical Theatre Repertory will present its own take of the production in the Massman Theatre, premiering on Friday.
Next to Normal tells the story of a mother named Diana (portrayed by Maxine Phoenix, a senior majoring in critical studies and minoring in theatre) as she deals with her delusional bipolar depression. Throughout the course of the show, each family member attempts to find their own ways of coping with Diana’s deteriorating mental health. At its core, the show delves into what it means to be a normal family, especially in the face of mental illness.
According to director Sean Soper, a junior majoring in business administration and minoring in theatre, the themes in Next to Normal can be difficult to relate to on paper; however, the creators succeeded in making the story relatable to all audiences.
“They gave us this family that constantly struggled with new burdens layered on top of them, which we can all relate to,” Soper said. “They did a great job of examining that pressure, that struggle just to wake up in the morning and push through the day. We’re all just trying to find our own ways to get by.”
Next to Normal features a cast of six: theatre students Liz Buzbee, Michael Kaczkowski, Patrick Olsen, Harrison Poe, Luke Matthew Simon and Phoenix. Production of the show started in March, with rehearsals beginning in mid-August.
With this year’s new fall musical, the MTR Artistic Board wanted to give students more opportunities to be involved in other productions. Thus, MTR is holding an earlier premiere in mid-September rather than its usual late-October debut, giving the cast and crew only four weeks to prepare.
The actors began rehearsing songs individually over the summer. Poe spent every day in the University Gateway practice rooms, listening to his recordings and sitting at the piano to “figure things out in advance,” as he knew playing the role of Gabe would be physically demanding.
According to co-producer Sophie Thomason, the themes, small cast and resulting “higher caliber” performances — Phoenix’s character, for instance, performs over 20 numbers — make Next to Normal remarkably different from past MTR productions that she said were “dark comedy-centered or uplifting and heartfelt.”
“There’s not a show that’s had this much exposure that deals with the themes of mental illness,” Thomason said. “We’ve never done something so heavy and dense, but this show has the potential to move audiences in a much more tangible way than other shows have.”
Because of these nuances, Soper wanted to bring MTR’s own twists to the overall production. After planning and sorting out production details, he decided to integrate weather imagery into different scenes, changing the show’s signature purple color palette to bluer hues. Sets were also redesigned from scratch and the production will showcase more ensemble choreography and more vivid movements.
However, the most notable distinction for this MTR production is its cast. Since the roles are so iconic based on the Broadway actors’ portrayals, audiences may already have a set perception of the characters. During one rehearsal, Soper told the actors that if they looked around the room, all of them were very different from those on Broadway.
“We don’t want to be a replica of Broadway,” Soper said. “Our actors’ representation of the roles is so different from the way they are typically portrayed, and I’ve been waiting for the audience’s reactions to our actors and their styles ever since we found these six guys.”
For instance, Aaron Tveit, who originated the role of Gabe, played the role as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenage hunk. Although Poe’s interpretation shares several similarities with Tveit’s, Poe wanted to portray Gabe in a more relatable light.
“Aaron Tveit kind of plays it like this sexy, almost edible bad boy, and I think my take on the character trying to be this perfect son who’s always there for Diana and less of the image of what society thinks is the perfect son,” Poe said.
For co-producer Sarah Hahm, it proves to be a challenge to divert from the usual standards people have for Next to Normal. In casting a family of two middle-aged adults and two teenagers from a pool of college students, Hahm and the rest of the casting team found that they needed to construct a family that was believable in maturity and age. Therefore, they stuck to the very principles of the characters while casting.
“We’re not casting Alice Ripley [who originated the role of Diana], and our Diana may not look like Ripley, sound like Ripley or have the same kind of energy, but she’s our Diana,” Hahm said. “That’s the beauty of musical theatre: You see so many types of people play these characters in a different way, but they still come across clearly.”
With the production deviating from being a carbon copy of the Broadway version, Soper is ecstatic to see to the audience experiencing a fresh new take on the musical. Since the show is already embedded with secrets and plot twists, Soper believes people’s expectations of Next to Normal will change after viewing the production this weekend.
“By having that new spin, people are going to be surprised just from the first moment,” Soper said. “They’ll forget about the secrets so that when they’re revealed, they’ll be hit twice as hard.”