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“Next to Normal,” Tony Award/Pulitzer Prize winning musical, will premiere locally

Show by Human Race and Victoria Theatre focuses on family’s struggle with mental illness

One of New York’s most earth-shaking new musicals will have its local premiere when The Human Race Theatre Company presents “Next to Normal.” The rock musical will be on stage May 7-19 at Dayton’s Victoria Theatre as part of the Premier Health Broadway series.

Heralded for bringing the often-suppressed subject of mental illness to the stage, the show has earned 11 Tony Award nominations and won for Best Score and Best Orchestration. It also earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and has been produced around the world.

There’s been a local connection to this hit musical from the beginning. The leading role of Diana Goodman, a mother dealing with bipolar disorder, was originated by West Carrollton’s Alice Ripley, whose heart-wrenching performance earned her the 2009 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award nominations.

‘The future of Broadway’

In Dayton, the production will star Trisha Rapier, a new York actress who dreamed of playing the challenging role since she first saw the play in previews.

“As soon as the curtain went up and I heard the first few chords, I knew I was going to like it,” said Rapier, who was already a big fan of Alice Ripley and the team of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt. Yorkey wrote the book and lyrics for “Next to Normal”; Kitt composed the music. “It was such an emotional journey. I sobbed through the entire show.”

Rapier wasn’t the only one involved with the Dayton production who was overwhelmed by “Next to Normal” when it opened in New York. Ken Neufeld, president and CEO of Victoria Theatre Association, found the musical “real” and “gritty.”

“It has an incredible, intense, exhilarating score,” said Neufeld, who quickly decided it was a natural choice for the annual production staged in cooperation with The Human Race. “It’s an important work of theater — musical or otherwise; it represents the future of Broadway.”

Breaking new ground

Scott Stoney, who has been involved with the Victoria/Human Race collaboration since the 1980s, is directing “Next to Normal,” and says he was “blown away” when he first saw it. In terms of breaking new theatrical ground, he likens it to “Sweeney Todd” and insists it’s a game-changer.

“I had no idea what to expect, and I was shattered and uplifted,” said Stoney, who also serves as co-music director and choreographer. “I would never have expected that story of mental illness to be in a musical — and a rock musical at that!”

Confronting complex issues

Among the complex issues addressed onstage are suicide, drug abuse, suburban life, ethics in modern psychiatry and grieving a loss.

“I think everyone knows someone who suffers from a mental illness, and we’re really talking about it here,” said Rapier, whose character’s mental illness has been triggered by a traumatic event in her life. “Ten to fifteen years ago, no one talked about this kind of thing.”

Rapier, who personally knows someone who is bipolar, said she used that knowledge to help research and create the role of Diana. The six-person cast includes other members of the Goodman family — Diana’s husband and two children. Jamie Cordes will portray Diana’s husband, Dan; Eric Michael Krop will play 17-year-old Gabe, Emily Price will play daughter Natalie. Other members of the cast are Jon Hacker and J.J. Tiemeyer.

Rapier said having a 3-year-old child of her own has made a big difference in helping her understand Diana.

“Being a mom adds a level of insight into the character, and I feel even more connected than I would have before,” said Rapier, whose family traveled with her to Dayton for weeks of rehearsals. “Diana is struggling with being a mom and keeping her household and marriage in order while dealing with this disease.”

A coveted role

Papier says every actress of about her age — she’s 39 — would love to play the complicated role that is filled with emotional highs and lows.

“You get to sing every note in your range,” said Rapier, who was born to a musical family on an Air Force base in Sacramento. Her grandmother still teaches piano, her dad and brother are singers. She studied music and drama at UCLA.

“There’s nothing more thrilling than to be on stage and sing your heart out,” said Rapier, who got her first job performing at Disneyland and moved on to perform with regional theaters, touring companies, summer stock and in New York. She has most recently been seen on Broadway in “Sister Act” and also shared the stage with Hugh Jackman in “The Boy From Oz.”

“Next to Normal” had one of the most beautiful scores ever heard, Rapier said. Her favorite song, a ballad titled “I Miss the Mountains,” is the song that clinched her audition.

“She did it so beautifully,” Stoney said. “She sang it; she worked it; she got the part!”

Bringing it all together

Stoney said one of the critical considerations when it came to casting the show was to make sure family members all looked like they belonged together physically. The three-story set, designed by David A. Centers, will transport audiences into the Goodman home.

“In most musicals, one element is stronger than the others. It might be the book, the music, the lyrics,” Stoney said. “I’ve been constantly surprised by the craft that has been put into this show — all three are equally strong, which is why it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. And the rock music — the rhythms — are quite challenging.”

A three-piece orchestra will be in the orchestra pit.

Stoney says the show is so complex and personal that he believes each person may have a different response to the theatrical journey.

“It’s dramatic, and in your face,” he said. “For some it will be cathartic. For others, it will be educational in opening up the closed doors that hide mental illness that happens in the family. While the end doesn’t provide a glib resolution, it does reveal a step toward healing for all the family members. And that is rewarding in and of itself.”

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