TheaterWorks Takes On Ambitious 'Next To Normal'

"Next to Normal" may be the new normal at TheaterWorks. Once this would have seemed a highly ambitious project for such an intimate, small theater to take on. But in a season that began with Richard Dreyfuss playing Albert Einstein in "Relativity" and another movie star with stage roots, Tony Todd, in the challenging drama "Sunset Baby," staging a hit New York musical about bipolar disorder no longer raises eyebrows.

When TheaterWorks Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero first mentioned publicly (before a performance of "Sex With Strangers" in March of last year) that he'd be directing "Next to Normal" at TheaterWorks this season, the announcement was greeted with cheers. Tickets have been selling briskly. Some performances are already sold out, and last week TheaterWorks announced that "Next to Normal," originally scheduled to close April 30, has been extended through May 14.

Ruggiero's been active as a director at TheaterWorks since 1993 and became its producing artistic director in 2012. He's also known for the lavish productions he's directed for Goodspeed Musicals, including "Showboat," "Fiddler on the Roof," Carousel" and "1776." Outside of Connecticut, he's directed musicals at such important theaters as New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, The MUNY in St. Louis and Barrington Stage in The Berkshires.

Ruggiero's done plenty of musical theater pieces at TheaterWorks in the past, including "The Last Five Years" and the premiere of "Ella," but most of those shows were of the single-piano, small combo or actor-strumming-a-guitar variety. "Next to Normal" has a six-person cast and a six-member rock band. The performers need to be miked. There's a revolving stage.

There's also a heavy plot: A woman, Diana, has been suffering from bipolar disorder for over 16 years. She is manic-depressive and prone to delusions. Her husband Dan strives to support Diana, and keep up the spirits of their children Gabe and Natalie.

To play the lead roles in this ambitious production, Ruggiero cast established musical theater stars Christiane Noll and David Harris. Both are familiar to Connecticut audiences: Noll starred in "Mack & Mabel," "The Baker's Wife" and "Lizzie Borden" for Goodspeed Musicals, has sung in concert with Hartford Symphony Orchestra and has also visited the state in national tours of "Jekyll & Hyde" and "Urinetown." Harris, a star in his native Australia who moved to America just a few years ago, was in Goodspeed's "Anything Goes" last summer and in "Les Miserables" at Connecticut Repertory Theatre the summer before that.

In separate phone interviews in mid-March, Noll and Harris said they were pleased and surprised when Ruggiero approached them about the show. Harris says Ruggiero came to see him in "Anything Goes" and "when he asked me to look at this, I was very keen. There was another offer on the table at that time, but this tipped me over."

Noll says Ruggiero directed her in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies" in September at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and recalls that "we had such great rapport." When the director called Noll a few months ago to chat, and mentioned "Next to Normal," she wasn't sure if he was offering her a role or just talking about a project that excited him. "I told my husband, 'I think I may have just been offered a job.'" Another conversation with Ruggiero clinched it. Now they are already talking about what shows they might do after this one.

"Next to Normal" is considered an enormously challenging musical, not just due to its dour subject matter but because of its rock-styled score. That score won a Tony and an Outer Critics Circle Award and "Next to Normal" received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012. A national tour of the Broadway production, directed by Michael Greif, played The Bushnell in 2011. It starred Alice Ripley, who originated the role of Diana off-Broadway in 2008 and on Broadway in 2009.

"People say to me, 'Can you even do 'Next to Normal'?'" Noll reveals. "That's because they know me from other things. They may think of me as a high coloratura. I do a lot of operetta. I sing standards. But I also do new shows. I'm thrilled to do new things." Harris feels the same way. "My resume doesn't yell of pop/rock scores or contemporary shows. The opportunities just haven't arisen. But this fits quite naturally in my voice."

"I haven't done 'Next to Normal' before," Noll says, "but I watched Alice Ripley go through the development of it. And I knew Tom Kitt when he was still writing it. He mentioned what he was working on, and I thought 'Well, that's interesting.' I think it will be perfect for TheaterWorks audiences. It's very confronting, in wonderfully rich ways. I'm marveling at TheaterWorks and their outreach in the community with this piece. They are really making it pertinent to this community." The theater's "Talkback Tuesday" discussions include panels on "Stigma and Discrimination in Mental Health," "facing the opioid crisis in America" and "the journey to wellness and recovery."

Given the theme of bipolar disorder and the effect it has on families, is "Next to Normal" emotionally draining to be a part of? Noll says no. "Not at all, because of the journey Diana takes. I am elated and empowered. It can be tiring because it's such a roller coaster, but it's such a brilliant piece."

For Harris, however, "not a day has gone by where I haven't cried. There's a massive toll in that. Dan is trying to button his feelings down, trying to steer his family, trying to keep it all together. It's hard finding that balance, mentally.

"You will hear the audience sobbing," David Harris says. "But there's hope in this as well. The comedic moments come out of the tragic moments. You can have a giggle and a laugh. Everyone will relate differently. I love going to a show and being taken away."

NEXT TO NORMAL runs through May 14 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $60 to $75. 860-527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that "Next to Normal" has been extended to May 14.

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