Tag Archives: Next to Normal

Feeling next to normal

Alice Ripley (L), Aaron Tveit (center) and J. Robert Spencer in "Next to Normal" at the Booth Theatre (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Some musicals mirror our lives. Others manage to change them. For our family, “Next to Normal” did both. So news that it’ll open Arizona Theatre Company’s 2012/13 season hits home. Our son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during middle school, and the road from first symptoms to stability was a rocky one.

For many years, the everyday experiences of living with mental illness took a toll on every member of our family, including Christopher’s two younger sisters. For Lizabeth, who’s long been interested in stage and screen, the musical “Next to Normal” felt an anthem of sorts in ways that only she can fully explain.

“Next to Normal” imagines the life of a suburban family fraught with depression and denial. Parents Diana and Tom battle their own demons, and each other, long after the death of son Gabe. Other characters include daughter Natalie, a friend of hers named Henry and Doctor Madden.

It features music by Tom Kitt, and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey — and is being directed for ATC by the company’s artistic director, David Ira Goldstein. The Broadway production won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama and three Tony Awards, including one for best musical score.

"Next to Normal" on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Lizabeth saw the musical during its Broadway run at the Booth Theatre, and we traveled together last January to see the touring production featuring Alice Ripley (who originated the role of Diana on Broadway) at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego. I’m hoping she’ll be on fall break during Arizona Theatre Company’s Oct. 11-28 run in Phoenix.

If not, we’ll continue our tradition of exchanging show stories. I’ve enjoyed hearing her accounts of everything from “Seminar” to “Porgy and Bess.” Some shows, like “Godspell” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” she’s seen more than once. Others, like “The Book of Mormon,” are tough to take in on a college student’s budget.

If Lizabeth gets to “Freud’s Last Session” at New World Stages in NYC, we’ll be able to compare notes on imagined conversations between Sigmund Freud and C.S Lewis — because Arizona Theatre Company is co-producing the Southwest premiere of this work with San Jose Rep as well. A Feb. 14-March 3 Phoenix run means those of you with a warped sense of humor have Valentine’s Day planning in the bag.

The 2012/13 season for Arizona Theatre Company also includes “Lombardi” (a play about Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi), “Emma” (a musical based on Jane Austen’s novel), “The Sunshine Boys” (a Neil Simon play about comedians reuniting to rehash their old schtick) and “Clybourne Park” (a play exploring race and real estate in America, which received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in drama).

Theater has long been a normalizing force amidst circumstances sometimes isolating and unpredictable. Works like “Next to Normal” remind families living with mental illness, or grief following the loss of a child, that they’re not alone. I’m not sure whether seeing “Next to Normal” again will feel more like applying a bandage or ripping one off. Both are necessary for healing.

– Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about Arizona Theatre Company’s current season and here to explore their 2012/13 offerings (show are performed at both Tucson and Phoenix venues)

Coming up: Dust in the wind

Update: “Clybourne Park,” which my hubby James saw during his last trip to NYC, has been nominted for several 2012 Tony Awards — including best play. Click here for a full list of this year’s Tony Award nominees. 5/1/12

Focus on forgiveness

I’m not Jewish, or much of anything else for that matter. Most days I’m satisfied with simply doing my best to be a good person. There’s plenty that needs doing in the here and now, so musings on an afterlife feel a luxury at best.

Still, I pause each year to really reflect on the meaning of a Jewish holiday called Yom Kippur, also known as the “Day of Atonement.” It’s right up there with Thanksgiving for me because forgiveness and gratitude are so essential to everyday life.

I hadn’t realized, when making plans to see Phoenix Theatre’s opening night performance of a lesser-known musical called “The Spitfire Grill,” that the themes of gratitude and forgiveness were so prevalent in the work.

“The Spitfire Grill” is peppered with characters who have imposing pasts but retreating futures. It’s set in a small, rural town that speaks authentically to the experiences of anyone who has ever lived in one. 

L to R: Jeannie Shubitz (Shelby), Trisha Hart Ditsworth (Percy), Toby Yatso (Joe) and Barbara McBain as Hannah in the Phoenix Theatre production of The Spitfire Grill

“The Spitfire Grill” has just a handful of characters — a widow who owns the grill, an ex-con who takes a job there and the law enforcement type who makes it possible. Also a town gossip and a couple whose relationship changes as the man feels his masculinity challenged by his wife’s discovery of life outside the laundry room. And a final character central to the musical’s themes of shame and loss.

The cast is a delightul mix of actors who’ve often graced the Phoenix Theatre stage (Johanna Carlisle as Effy, Rusty Ferracane as Caleb and Toby Yatso as Joe) and those making a Phoenix Theatre debut (Jason Barth as Eli and Trisha Hart Ditsworth as Percy). Barbara McBain returns to Phoenix Theatre as Hannah and Jeannie Shubitz returns as Shelby.

If you like spunky or feisty women, you’ll find them at “The Spitfire Grill.” As events unfold, one woman is forced to confront her goodness as another learns to embrace her power. Two face the loss of a child, and learn to let go of the shame they need never have carried. The men feel less transformed somehow, but that could be my chromosomes talking.

L to R: Trisha Hart Ditsworth (Percy), Barbara McBain (Hannah) and Jeannie Shubitz (Shelby) undergo profound transformation in The Spitfire Grill at Phoenix Theatre

There’s much to love about “The Spitfire Grill.” Dialogue like Percy’s “If a wound goes real deep, can the healin’ feel just as bad as what caused it?” Music, rich in strings, that leaves you just a little bit tempted to get up and square dance, two-step or do a jig. And storytelling praised by many who attended opening night as “simple” and “straightforward.”

Several of the songs, slower ballads that soar like the birds they sometimes reference, are among the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard in the world of musical theater — reminding me of other favorites like “Maybe” from “Next to Normal.” Ordering the cast album from the folks who created “The Spitfire Grill” is high on my “to do” list.

The Spitfire Grill,” directed for Phoenix Theatre by Brad Carroll, is based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff (though the film and the musical have entirely different endings). It features music by James Valcq, lyrics by Fred Alley, and book by both Valcq and Alley.

Alan Ruchs serves as musical director for this production (he’s the resident musical director at Phoenix Theatre). Mike Eddy serves as director of production and lighting designer. Robert Andrew Kovach serves as scenic designer. All perform brilliantly in making “The Spitfire Grill” at Phoenix Theatre a moving experience for theater-goers.

While “The Spitfire Grill” has been dubbed “a musical about second chances,” I’m not convinced that tagline does it justice. Plenty of people get the gift of a second chance nowadays without undergoing any real change.

“The Spitfire Grill” is more of a transformation tale — a story of family and forgiveness rooted in very real evolutions of self. A world without forgiveness for self, others and sometimes even the universe, is a miserable one indeed.

“The Spitfire Grill” is a lovely gem of a musical reminding us all to let go and let live.

– Lynn

Note: Phoenix Theatre is undergoing its own transformation, which you can learn more about or get more involved with by clicking here.

Coming up: Who’s munching who?, Before there was Zuccotti Park…

From Sondheim to South Park

South Park Elementary School Musical episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

I worried as a young parent that irreverent television shows like the animated series “South Park” on Comedy Central might serve as a sort of gateway drug to all sorts of bad behavior. I suppose it was the foul language factor that scared me the most. There’s nothing pretty about cruising the bathroom cleanser aisle of the local mommy mart with a potty-mouth child in tow.

South Park The F Word episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

Yet musicals laced with colorful language have never felt all that threatening. I didn’t even realize “Les Miserables” contained a four-letter word until I saw it, just yesterday, for the umpteenth time. My daughter, Lizabeth, has been joining me at the theater for more than half her lifetime. Most of our favorite shows are peppered with language that’s plenty spicy. Think “Spring Awakening,” “Avenue Q,” and “Next to Normal.”

South Park All About Mormons episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

As “The Book of Mormon,” a new musical with book, music and lyrics by “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and “Avenue Q” co-creator Robert Lopez, creates a stir on Broadway, I suspect part of its popularity stems from the “South Park” as gateway drug factor. How lovely to have a built-in following that already rocks it in the world of cynicism and absurdity.

I’m all for the gateway drug approach, assuming we’re talking about ideas rather than injectables — but my starter drug isn’t “South Park.” It’s Sondheim. Because my love of musical theater is fueling a new appreciation of all things “South Park.” I don’t do much in the way of “appointment television.” Few series are intriguing enough to demand regular viewing. But tonight I sat glued to the latest episode of “South Park” — in which Stan, who’s celebrating his 10th birthday, gets an official diagnosis of cynicism (and makes generous use of the word I was shocked to hear just once during “Les Mis”).

South Park You're Getting Old episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

I’ll never be a fan of humor favored by adolescent boys — barf jokes, poop gags and such. But I’m eager to encounter the genius of Parker and Stone outside my frequent encounters with the CD for “The Book of Mormon” and the nifty little paperback featuring the complete book and lyrics of the musical. One day I hope to land a ticket to see the show on Broadway.

South Park Super Best Friends episode - Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

People asked, after I chose to pursue graduate studies in religion, what I planned to do with my degree. With three years of doctoral study in the philosophy of religion in the bag, I feel uniquely equipped to experience “The Book of Mormon” in all its splendor. Whether all that Kant and Camus will help me grasp the machinations of Stan, Kyle, Eric, Kenny and Butters remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

– Lynn

Note: Click here for “The Book of Mormon” show and ticket information

Coming up: Musings on the 2011 Tony Awards®, The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards

Moms in musical theater

Patti LuPone as Mama Rose in Gypsy on Broadway-Photo by Joan Marcus. LuPone performs at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts March 3, 2012.

I got to thinking about mothers in musical theater the other day while looking forward to the return of “Mamma Mia!” to ASU Gammage this week, which my daughter Lizabeth is eager to see for a second time. Apparently watching a fictional parent prance around in bell bottoms has more appeal than living with the real thing.

Alice Ripley as Diana in Next to Normal-Photo by Joan Marcus

We’ve seen all sorts of parents portrayed on Valley, and other, stages. We saw Alice Ripley perform the role of “Diana” in “Next to Normal” at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego. Estelle Parsons perform the role of “Violet” in “August: Osage County” at ASU Gammage. And Rich Hebert perform the role of “Dad” in “Billy Elliot” at ASU Gammage as well.

“Mamma Mia!” follows the adventures of a young daughter, “Sophie,” readying to wed. She lives on an island with her mom, “Donna,” who isn’t quite sure which of three suitors from her own youth might be Sophie’s biological father. It’s all set to music by ABBA and it’s an especially fun show for folks who like their theater upbeat and awash with bright colors.

Madalena Alberto as Fantine in Les Mis-Photo by Michael La Poer Trench

A mother facing a more serious dilemma, the care of her young daughter in her absence, is at the heart of the next musical coming to ASU Gammage — Les Miserables. As a mom named “Fantine” who has sacrificed much for her child lay dying, an ex-convict named “Jean Valjean” vows to keep the child “Cosette” safe. It proves quite a task given his own past and stirrings of revolution in early 19th century France.

The perplexing nature of parenting seems sometimes to be the only thing fueling the future of theater craft. A quick review of shows coming to Valley stages during the 2011/12 season reveals a long list of works filled with mommy or daddy issues — some set to music, others just words.

Kaye Tuckerman as Donna and Chloe Tucker as Sophie in Mamma Mia!-Photo by Joan Marcus

Arizona Theatre Company presents the Yasmina Rez play “God of Carnage” in Tucson and Phoenix this fall. It’s the tale of two couples brought together by a playground fight between their 11-year-old sons. I’m delighted to learn that mothers and daughters aren’t always the ones under the microscope.

Phoenix Theatre performs a classic work of musical theater about stage mothering gone horribly wrong next spring. “Gypsy” is the story of “Mama Rose” and the two daughters forced to endure her insecurity and interference. That woman needs to cut the cord already.

Arizona Jewish Theatre Company presents “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” based on a book in which Sheri Mandell shares experiences surrounding the murder of her 13-year-old son Koby and his friend Yosef. It’s been adapted for the stage by Todd Salovey, and reviews of other productions paint it as gut-wrenching.

While I suppose it’s tempting for some to relish all those ABBA moments without experiencing more sobering reflections on parenting, I’m looking forward to doing both.

– Lynn

Look to these nuns for some serious fun... (Photo: Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts)

Note: Looking for an additional way to enjoy mother/daughter or grown-up friend time? Head to Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts Sat, May 21 for the “Sing-Along Sound of Music.” $12/adults, $6 children ages 3-12. Warm up & costume contest at 2pm, film and sing-along at 2:3opm. Hosted by “Sister” Patti Hannon of “Late Night Catechism.” Click here for info on costume discount available from Mardi Gras costumes in Scottsdale.

Coming up: Summer dance classes, Ode to season tickets, Seuss meets symphony, Musings on photo I.D.

One road trip is never enough

I'm already planning my next mother/daughter road trip

With my youngest heading off to college this fall, the days of mother/daughter road trips may soon be behind us.

So I’m eager to find any opportunity for a weekend getaway that will give me precious time my 17-year-old Lizabeth.

I enjoyed a road trip to San Francisco with my now 19-year-old daughter Jennifer several years ago — an experience I will always cherish.

Our trips together find us enjoying funkier fare, like hole-in-the-wall cafes with Turkish coffee or spicy offerings from India and street fairs with handcrafted wares.

I love experiencing one-on-one travel time with my children, getting to know them a bit better as they journey out of childhood and ready to travel their own road through adulthood.

Several films being featured at the festival have an Arizona connection

Come February, I’m hoping to hit some of the Sedona International Film Festival offerings with Lizabeth. By then, she’ll have finished her cross-country trips for college theater program auditions.

The 17th Annual International Sedona Film Festival takes place Feb 20-27 and features more than 145 films shown at three Sedona venues, including the Sedona Harkins 6 Luxury Cinema.

A special preview premiere screening of “Sedona: The Motion Picture” (shot in and around Sedona) will kick-off the festival one night early on Sat, Feb 19.

The film’s soundtrack features “indigenous sounds of the region” and performance by musicians from The Juilliard School.

Many of the films being shown address arts and culture

So what’s on the movie menu at this year’s festival? Foreign films from 18 countries. Seven films focused on the environment. A Lifetime Achievement Award for Jonathan Winters, and a tribute to character actor Rip Torn.

Films tackle diverse subjects — including border issues, indigenous cultures, gay and lesbian themes, war and politics, women’s issues, and individuals living with physical or mental challenges.

Also aging, animals, education, the worlds of children and many more — in categories that include animation, documentary, feature and short films.

I’m plenty intrigued just reading through the list of film titles, which include “Voodoo,” “Old People Driving,” “The Butterfly Circus,” “My Dog Tulip,” and “Arpaio’s America.”

Visit http://www.sedonafilmfestival.com to learn more about film offerings and ticket packages

Films titled “The Parking Lot Movie,” “Cast Me If You Can,” “The Desert of Forbidden Art,” “The First Grader,” “A Marine Story” and “The Man Who Knew How to Fly” also caught my eye.

Various types of passes and ticket packages are available, including a 10-ticket package for full-time students that runs just $80 (it will be available only through the box office and require a valid student I.D.). Individual film tickets will be available in February.

At this point, there’s really only one thing that could make a road trip to the Sedona International Film Festival any more enjoyable — news that Arizona schools are changing spring break to Feb 20-27.

–Lynn

Note: To learn more about film in Arizona, visit the Arizona Production Association

Coming up: Q & A with “Spring Awakening” cast members (who’ll perform a final Phoenix show at ASU Gammage  at 7pm on Fri, Jan 28)

Much more than normal

by guest blogger Gabrielle Abrams

ASU student Gabielle Abrams saw "Next to Normal" at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego on Jan 22, 2011

Next to Normal is a musical that jumps over the line that many musicals shy away from.

Many people will even shy away from the topics brought up in this heavy yet entertaining show.

Next to Normal deals with issues of depression, and those coping with family members who are being treated for mental illnesses.

The cast members in this show are intense, bringing an electrifying score to life. It’s a small cast of only six actors who carry along the entire show.

Each actor was amazing, hitting notes that so many can only dream of. They demanded the attention and it was difficult when all were on the scene at the same time to focus on only one of them.

Alice Ripley, who originated the role of Diana, is touring with the show and giving it her all. She is a fierce actress and hits the emotional scenes with such force and honesty.

Yet Ripley’s vocal performance is not what it used to be. The songs are draining on her voice and it seems much raspier and strained than on the original recordings. 

The set is unusual to most big Broadway musicals, being a more minimalist type set. The framework stays the same throughout the whole show and is formed to be a three story house as if you cut it in the middle.  

This allows the actors to move about in their own “rooms” and do something independent. This helped the scenes switch easily from one area to the other.

This is one musical that dares to go where none other has. The characters are well defined and are easily connected with. 

Next to Normal is heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. This is one musical that shouldn’t be missed.

Note: Gabrielle Abrams is a journalism student at Arizona State University.

Road trip: Balboa Theatre

Balboa Theatre in San Diego

I confess to feeling like a bit of a traitor. Eager to see the musical “Next to Normal,” I went with Lizabeth to San Diego for the weekend so we could see the show at the Balboa Theatre.

We’re longtime season ticket holders for the “Broadway Across Arizona” series at ASU Gammage, but haven’t any way of knowing whether “Next to Normal” will be part of their 2011-2012 slate.

When a small group of students from Lizabeth’s school went to NYC last year, everyone else saw “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway. Lizabeth chose to see “Next to Normal” instead, and took another student along for the show — only to learn that an understudy was replacing Alice Ripley (winner of a 2009 Tony Award for best performance by a leading actress in a musical) for that performance.

Young fans sometimes linger after the show to request autographs

We waited a long time outside the Balboa Theatre stage door after Saturday night’s “Next to Normal” performance — hoping to meet Ripley and tell her just how powerful we found her performance.

Though she didn’t come out after the show (we suspect she was feeling a bit under the weather), we did get to chat with several other cast members — all very gracious about talking with folks, signing programs and posing for pictures.

Considering all the lights and strobe effects in the show, I half expected cast members to wince at the thought of enduring a flurry of flashes. But they seemed happy to linger, with smiles and personalities as bright as those amazing lights on the three-tier set.

Balboa Theatre features beautiful decor

We shared that we’d come from Arizona — and folks asked “Which part of Arizona?” My answer — “the liberal part” — drew a hearty laugh from a cast member who shared that he’d grown up in Utah. We felt among friends.

Also waiting at the stage door that night were two Arizona students — including an ASU journalism major. I gave her my card and invited her to send me a review of “Next to Normal” — which she sent nearly perfectly polished and before “deadline.”

This chocolate joint was open past midnight!

We were among the final folks to abandon the quest to meet Ms. Ripley. When the theater security guards lock up and a police car starts lingering nearby, you get the feeling your level of interest might be misconstrued.

But before we moved on for a late night Ghirardelli run, we chatted with a delightful stage mom. I’m afraid to attempt the spelling of her name — which is quite beautiful and exotic. But I can handle the name of her 8-year-old son, Pierre.

Perhaps Pierre will sign autographs some day

Apparently Pierre was terribly shy until his parents enrolled him in a theater class, which introduced him to a world where different can be good. Now he’s becoming a regular on the San Diego Junior Theatre stage.

Remembering as we spoke that Theater Works’ Youth Works in Peoria is readying to open “James and the Giant Peach,” I invited Pierre’s mom to have him give me a call. Seems he’s an avid reader of Roald Dahl — the author of the book on which this play is based. I also encouraged her to make an Arizona road trip to explore our family-friendly theater offerings by Childsplay and others.

The beaches of San Diego (portrayed in this mural at the airport) are hard to leave behind

We’ve never spent a night at the theater without being introduced to compelling ideas and creative people — whether here in the Valley, on Broadway, or in another state. I can’t wait to see what Arizona companies and venues are offering during the 2011-2012 season.

Even the folks who sell show merchandise are friendly and fun

Something tells me that a pair of young men we met in San Diego will be heading to Tempe this week to see “Spring Awakening” at ASU Gammage. It sounds like they may follow this musical the way young adults of earlier generations sought out the Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen.

But what of “Next to Normal?” I’ll share thoughts on the show in a future post — and am delighted today to share a review by Gabrielle Abrams, whose writing I expect to be reading in all sorts of places for many years to come.

– Lynn

Note: Visit the “On Stage” section of the daily online calendar at www.raisingarizonakids.com to learn about family-friendly theater options here in the Valley.

Coming up: Film competition for high school students, Valley theater company holds playwriting competition, More history meets theater

Photos by Lynn Trimble (with special thanks to Lizabeth for enduring her mother’s fascination with photographing signs and other oddities)