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

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