In just two weeks, Whittier College’s Theatre and Communications Department will be producing the heart wrenching, “feel-everything” musical Next to Normal. This Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, is about a mother coping with a bipolar depressive disorder and explores the effects her struggles have on her as well as her family.
This poignant show addresses mental illness and grief in such a profound and realistic way, leaving audiences overcome with emotion as they witness one “normal” suburban household survive crisis. This musical is unique because it has the capacity to touch people from every walk of life, especially those with personal associations to the thematic elements.
When asked about the significance of the show’s theme of mental illness, sophomore Sydney Summers, who portrays mother Diana Goodman in the musical, responded, “There aren’t many art pieces in general about subjects such as mental illness because it is a common stigma that no one is going to want to experience them.” Summers, who started practicing theater as a freshman in high school said, “But it is very important because the way it approaches the subject is a very millennial view of mental illness that is very accurate and very realistic. It doesn’t just focus on everything that is wrong, it has the necessary light moments.”
Summers described the origin of the musical as a ten minute show centered around Diana that grew from there. “It started out as one song, called ‘Feeling Electric’, portraying Diana as she receives an [Electroconvulsive Therapy] ECT treatment,” Summers said. “From there, it branched into one story of how the treatment and how being bipolar depressive affected her family. They [the writers] approach the subject matter in a way that’s very true to life, as if they could be the ones suffering.”
The show is centered on Diana of the Goodman family, sixteen-year-old son Gabe Goodman played by first-year Zayne Repp, fifteen-year-old daughter Natalie Goodman played by first-year Lauren Estrada, and father Dan Goodman played by sophomore Jacob Shore.
Diana describes the family in the opening number of the musical, “Just Another Day,” as “the perfect loving family.” Additionally, junior Cristian Perez plays the roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, who Diana sees throughout the musical, and junior Ruben Sanchez plays Henry, Natalie’s classmate and love-interest.
Summers’ connection with this role is a deep one. She teared up when asked why this show is important to her. Summers emphatically responded, “No matter what your experience is, I think it is really important to walk through life and put yourself in other people’s shoes, to understand how someone is feeling and why before making snap judgments. I think each character in this show is a very different human being, so I’m hoping by having all these characters displayed in the rawest of fashions on stage in front of an audience will help teach audiences how to better understand people.”
She continued, “I am excited for people to come and hopefully be open-minded enough to feel everything with us. I mean, I will be crying, as I am now a little. There will be crying, laughing, shock, heartbreak. There is every emotion ever imagined packed within this two hour show. So I’m excited for that.”
In regards to the great undertaking of this complicated character, Summers commented, “I approached the role by doing a ton of research. We also had our lovely dramaturge Mimi RuthStiver do a ton more research to reveal things I didn’t know. It’s been a real eye-opener because you don’t consciously go through your life thinking about what people go through on a day-to-day basis, especially regarding mental illness. I have a lot of people in my life who have inspired many different pieces of the character.” Summers continued, “I think ultimately, it’s an important story to tell and somebody has to portray a character that struggles with mental illness for people to see.”
This show is one with many emotional twists and turns. Director Dr. Jennifer Holmes said, “I think Next to Normal deals with it really well. We just kind of had to find the doors in how to tell the story. The story itself is really well-written and deals with mental illness in a very direct and honest way,” Holmes said. The cast studied the musical this past Jan Term in order to be more prepared for their own show. “We talked a lot about [the themes regarding mental illness] during Jan term and [the cast] wrote about Next to Normal in relation to another musical and in some of them mental illness came up. We watched a documentary about suicide called Every Brilliant Thing and then we talked about it.” Holmes added, “Dr. Cook and I have never done a musical on such a small scale in terms of cast size but Brian [Reed], Gil [Gonzalez], Stephen [Cook], and I kind of thought it was a good one to do in terms of the thematic relevance.”
Her love for this show beamed as she talked about the rehearsal process and how she first discovered the show. “Three or four years ago, we went to Next to Normal as apart of the Los Angeles Integrated Arts Program and I thought it was a really compelling show. It deals with issues in a really heartfelt way that you rarely see on the stage,” Holmes said. “I love that it’s such an anti-musical in that it challenges expectations of musicals. I also love that nine-tenths of the show are really in conflict, but still, the end of the show is hopeful. I leave feeling hopeful, even though I watched dysfunction and pain being played out in an honest way for the majority of the show. That, I think, creates really a great theatrical experience. The cast is doing a really solid job with it and that’s a joy. I enjoy getting to watch that.”
This emotionally-charged production opens April 6 running through April 8. Doors will open at 7 p.m. and curtain is at 7:30 p.m. in the Shannon Center. A matinee will be performed April 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets are free for all Whittier College students on April 6. Otherwise student tickets are $5, adults are $15, and seniors are $10. Additionally, there will be a talkback with the audience opening night after the performance.