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Tampa Rep debuts Pulitzer-winning musical ‘Next to Normal’

Bill DeYoung



Alexis Carra and Ben Sutherland in the Tampa Repertory Theatre production of "Next to Normal." Images: Stage Photography of Tampa.

Diana Goodman is a suburban housewife with a problem. A whole medicine chest-full of them.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she’s taking way too much prescription medication, and things are spiraling out of control. Her life has become a topsy-turvy balancing act between fits of wildly erratic behavior and disorientation, all while attempting – or at least attempting to attempt – something like normal life. Her husband and her teenage children are caught in the day-to-day vortex of confusion and pain.

This is the jumping-off point for the musical Next to Normal, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and multiple Tony Awards, including Best Original Score.

Brian Yorkey wrote the book and the incisive lyrics; the music is by Tom Kitt.

“The important storytelling is encapsulated in just amazing music,” enthuses Emilia Sargent, the artistic director of Tampa Repertory Theatre, and director of Next to Normal, which opens Friday on the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus.

“The catalyst, sometimes, for opening up people’s feelings is music. And it’s so resonant and so powerful in and of itself, and evocative of emotion, that it opens us up to hear the story.”

Diana’s story, of course, is also the story of her family – daughter Natalie and husband Dan suffer immeasurable collateral damage. It’s that universal “who cares for the caregivers?” conundrum.

“Dan is, in so many ways, the caregiver and he doesn’t really get to take care of himself emotionally,” Sargent explains. “So that really struck me, Dan’s story. As a director, I started with Diana center stage, with everything sort of circling around her. Everyone just orbiting her.”

That changed. “It’s everyone’s story.”

And the story is a gut punch.

From left: Sutherland, Carra and Jim Sorenson.

The script takes Diana to a series of doctors; each visit more hallucinogenic than the next. Diana, it transpires, had suffered a devastating loss, one her brain has never been able to fully accept.

One particularly creepy psychiatrist convinces the family that electroshock therapy might be just the thing to pull Diana back from the brink.

The Tampa Rep production features Alexis Carra as Diana, Jim Sorenson as Dan, Nicholas Perez-Hoop as Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, Mariela Zeno as Natalie, Max Dalton as Henry and Ben Sutherland as Gabe.

According to Sargent, the Next to Normal auditions brought out for singing and acting talent than she thought may have existed in Tampa Bay. It was, she stresses, an embarrassment of riches.

It also utilizes a live, six-piece band, directed by Juan Rodriguez.

The production (running through June 16) is a cornerstone of Tampa Rep’s Raise the Curtain on Mental Awareness initiative. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the theater company has partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Tampa Bay Thrives to conduct talkbacks, with audience, cast and crew, following select performances.

Next to Normal, Sargent believes, can be an important element of the conversation. “We’re talking about mental health awareness more as a society. And really, the heart of the Raise the Curtain initiative is to destigmatize just talking about it.

“Everyone has some experience either directly or adjacent to mental health challenges. Whether it’s ourselves or somebody we care about.”

Organizations like NAMI and Tampa Bay Thrives, she says, “have ongoing missions to provide mental health services to the community. They themselves have such effective programs – and it’s the same thing for any organization, just getting the word out that these services are available.”

Thus, the partnership with Tampa Rep. “It’s really easy for us to do wonderful things in our own silos,” Sargent adds. “But to have some way to connect – and what better way than art to connect us? – it accelerates the work that can be done, as people are learning what others are doing.

“If we’re going to do this groundbreaking musical, which has been used as a vehicle around the country to open up conversations, it’s such an opportunity to reach beyond what we’re doing on the stage. And to become part of the community conversation. And to be a better community partner.”

Next to Normal opens Friday, with a sold-out preview performance Thursday, at the USF Theatre Centre (TAR 120, 3837 USF Holly Dr., Tampa 33620). Find more information and tickets here.












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