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'Next to Normal': A musical rollercoaster 

Wrenching musical mines mental illness.

The Rep's "Next to Normal" image with  Kristin Parker, Jonathan Rayson, Deb Lyons and Will Holly
  • Dero Sanford
  • A 'NORMAL' FAMILY: Kristin Parker, Jonathan Rayson, Deb Lyons and Will Holly star in The Rep's production of "Next to Normal," which runs May 4-27.

Imagine being bipolar: Who would you be if you were afflicted by unpredictable derangements of mood, unstable highs and lows? We've come a long way since the slightest sign of disorder had you locked and lobotomized in a sanitarium, but mental illness, embellished with stereotypes and mediated by dimly understood chemical activity in the brain, remains problematic. The cold, hard facts of science can be discomforting and hard to understand.

That's why we often turn to art and theater: to illuminate them. Such is the goal of the musical drama — rock opera, if you will — "Next to Normal," which debuted on Broadway in 2009 and opens at The Arkansas Repertory Theatre on May 4. It is about a woman named Diana Goodman who seeks various treatments for her bipolar disorder, and the travails of her family as she pulls them along for the ride.

It's a bit tougher to chew on than most musical theater, to be sure. Nevertheless, the show won three Tony Awards and took the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the latest musical to do so since "Rent"). With music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, it has been acclaimed for its poignant dramatization of mental illness, despite being a member of the generally upbeat genre of musical theater.

[NOTE: THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD.]

Diana (Deb Lyons) is an ordinary suburban wife and mother, with the exception of her deteriorating mood disorder. Troubled by visions of a son who died in infancy and now appears to her in teen-age form (Will Holly), she struggles to remain close to her faithful husband, Dan (Jonathan Rayson). Meanwhile, her daughter, Natalie (Kristin Parker), is ostracized by her mother's condition and seeks refuge at school, where she is romanced by her classmate Henry (Mo Brady).

"These are very contemporary characters," Brady said, "and the show is a very contemporary emotional experience. They're drinking lattes and talking on their iPhones." Contemporary — like its audience — but only next to normal. As her condition worsens, Diana evolves from pills to electroshock therapy and longs for the days when mood stabilizers did not tamper with the natural melancholy and happiness of being alive. With humor peeking through here and there, it isn't a total downer, but audiences should prepare themselves to see all of the anguish of the Goodman family wrung out before them.

It is no small feat for any of the actors, whose roles somewhat echo Diana's ups and downs. Even rehearsal can be wrenching. "It's exhausting," Brady said. "But it's such a well-written piece that once you figure out the rollercoaster of the show, you're on it and you can't jump off. It really gives us the opportunity to get our hands dirty."

For this reason, a role in "Next to Normal" is highly sought-after by actors. When Nicole Capri, who is directing The Rep's production, posted the auditions nationally, she had more than 100 submissions in only a few hours, and she spent a week sifting through every resume.

"I'm so lucky to have the cast members that I do," Capri said. "When we auditioned for Diana's part — the role of a lifetime for women in their 40s and 50s — there were actresses who could sing the role, but I didn't see in them the mental toughness or emotional tenacity. There is definitely a unique layer of exhaustion attached to the part." Lyons, Capri assures, is the cream of the crop, as are the others in The Rep's production.

Thinking beyond the stage, Capri and The Rep hope that "Next to Normal" opens up a dialogue concerning mental illness. The production is sponsored in part by the UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute, members of which were consulted during one rehearsal. The audience, too, will have a chance to give questions to psychiatrists after the show on May 15, which is MainStage Sponsor Night.

"I was curious what medical professionals would think of the play," Capri said, "and they were as fascinated with it as I am. They read it and listened to the soundtrack, and didn't say, 'Oh, we don't do it that way.' They are very excited about using this in our community as a teaching tool and allowing a dialogue in families that see the show."

"Next to Normal" runs May 4-27. The Wolfe Street Foundation's preview night is 7 p.m. May 1 and Pay What You Can night is 7 p.m. May 2. Advance tickets can be purchased at The Rep's box office at 501-378-0405 or at www.therep.org.

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