“Next to Normal,” the TheatreZone production opening today, might be talking straight to you — or perhaps one of your family.
It is a thought-provoking contemporary musical about the Goodmans, an ordinary family that must come to terms with the piercing realities of one member’s mental illness.
TheatreZone Director Mark Danni said the musical conveys the heavy subject matter with honesty and humor.
“There are light moments,” he added.
The drama is well known for its entertainment value — it won three Tony Awards in 2009 and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But the show’s message and accuracy drew Danni.
“It’s also one of those pieces where you can communicate to people — not just entertain, but actually communicate — on an issue that so many people deal with and are afraid to be public about,” Danni said.
If you go
‘Next to Normal’
What: A TheatreZone Production
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, March 7 through Saturday, March 9 and March 14-16 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday and March 17
Where: G&L Theatre, the Community School of Naples, 13275 Livingston Road, Naples
Tickets: $43 and $58 plus a fee
To purchase: 888-966-3352 or www.theatrezone-florida.com
Diana Goodman, the matriarch of the family, lurches through the highs and lows of bipolar disorder, as the family around her tries to function.
In any given year, about 2.6 percent of the adult population in the United States — approximately 5.7 million people — are affected by bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Karen Molnar, the production’s choreographer and Danni’s wife, plays Diana Goodman, the suburban mother who ricochets from intense lows to brilliant highs while she and her family explore the proper treatment for her diagnosis.
Molnar said she is able to handle the demands of the role because she is not a method actress.
“I’ve become pretty good at leaving it at the door,” she said.
Dan Goodman, played by Larry Alexander, is her husband and primary caregiver. Alexander, a veteran Broadway and TheatreZone actor, said his character is trying to hold everyone together.
“He’s dealing with all different levels of unhealthiness,” Alexander said.
The couples’ two children, total opposites Natalie and Gabriel Goodman, are caught up in the tempest of their mother’s fluctuating feelings. Vera Samuels plays Natalie, a rebellious teen who feels neglected by her parents.
She said Natalie is relatable because the character is filled with the angst and loneliness that many teenagers feel.
“She just epitomizes all of that,” Samuels said.
The musical’s emotional ups and downs require the actors to dig deep, according to Alexander.
“You’ve got to go to some pretty dark places,” he said.
Samuels, a petite woman with a booming singing voice, said she understands what Natalie Goodman goes through because of her own family struggles.
“It hits very close to home for me,” she said.
To enrich the experience for audiences, TheatreZone partnered with the David Lawrence Center, the Southwest Florida not-for-profit mental health and substance abuse treatment center, to host two discussion events about the musical and its themes.
Scott Haltzman, a staff psychiatrist at the David Lawrence Center, agreed to speak at both events.
Coincidentally, he already had seen the musical years before.
Haltzman said he was in New York City standing in line for Broadway tickets when a person standing in front of him suggested that he see “Next to Normal.”
“I didn’t even know what it was about before she mentioned it,” he said.
Haltzman said he was impressed by the “creative way” the musical portrayed mental illness.
“I’m always very skeptical of people who try to convey it,” he said. “There was something about this that seemed very authentic and captivating and even — accurate.”
Tom Kitt, who co-created “Next to Normal,” said he and his writing partner, Brian Yorkey, did a lot of research and asked medical professionals to weigh in on the script.
“We really wanted to get the medicine correct and not have people walk away with any sort of bad feeling about the portrayal of the disease (or) the medical community,” Kitt said.
They also made deliberate choices regarding the characters, too, according to Kitt.
“There were questions of should Diana be an artist, should she be some sort of genius. And we felt like once you do that, you desensitize the audience a little bit ’cause they feel like what they’re watching only happens to someone with these bursts of creativity and genius, as opposed to someone who works, who is a mother, who is a wife,” Kitt said. “I think that if you look at the statistics, more people who deal with this really represent the entire spectrum of people.”
The play won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a special distinction reserved only for plays with top literary value. Past winners include Arthur Miller for “Death of a Salesman” in 1941 and Tennessee Williams for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1955.
Haltzman said that although “Next to Normal” is stylized, it does a good job of showing a patient’s psychiatric treatment cycle, the feelings of denial felt by family members and the balance between hope and despair that people go through.
“So many of those qualities I see in my patients,” he said.
But the characters on stage do seem to have one advantage: They can spontaneously burst into song when things get intense. Music serves as the vehicle for the characters’ most powerful emotions.
Kitt, who composed the emotionally charged score, said he and Yorkey decided early on that the story was most compelling when the characters were singing.
“We definitely felt like we wanted the score to do the heavy lifting,” Kitt said. “And it also made the moments of dialogue that much more important.”
The music spans genres — from rock to gospel.
TheatreZone’s production will include a six-member live band with Michael Horsley, a longtime friend of Danni’s, as music director.
Kitt said he has seen different types of theatergoers take to the piece.
“I hope we’ve done this in a way that no matter what your sensibilities are, you will see this, you will go with it and it will affect you,” Kitt said.
Kitt said he is confident that Southwest Florida audiences will be inspired by TheatreZone’s take on the musical.
“I know they are going to do a beautiful job of it,” Kitt said.