Laughter has a way of surfacing even in the most oppressive situations.
And there’s nothing that boxes in a person more than mental illness, weighing the spirit down to the point of hopelessness.
“But there are points where you can’t help but laugh, because you’re saying to yourself, ‘I tried that, and it doesn’t work,” Mace Archer says. “And when it doesn’t work for the characters, it becomes comical.”
Archer is directing Theatre Baton Rouge’s production of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Next to Normal,” which kicks off the 2015-16 Turner-Fischer City Series on Friday, Aug. 7.
Brian Yorkey wrote the book and lyrics, and Tom Kitt the music, for this rock musical that focuses on a mother struggling with a severe case of bipolar disorder, and the effect that the illness and attempts to alleviate it has on her family.
The story also explores grief, suicide, drug abuse and ethics in modern psychiatry, all set in the underbelly of suburban life.
Pretty heavy stuff for summertime musical fare. But not everything is dark, even in a journey through mental illness.
“There are lots of light moments,” Archer says.
“And I would tell the audience that they need to come see it with an open mind,” says Enrico Cannella, who takes on double roles as psychiatrists Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine. “This is not the ‘Music Man.’ This is not your grandparents’ musical. But it is a great show, so I would just advise people coming to see it to be open to it.”
“Next to Normal” debuted on Broadway in 2009, earning 11 Tony nominations, winning three. The show also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The story opens with bipolar mom Diana, played by Marian Bienvenu, waiting up for her son, who has stayed out past curfew. A secret is revealed about her son as the story progresses, which accounts for her growing depression. Her architect husband, Dan, later enters to help get the family ready for the day.
“Dan’s in complete denial of his wife’s affliction,” says Jason Dowies, who plays the husband and father. “He tries to cover it up, but he can’t mask it. He’s dealing with grief, too, but he can’t attack it head on.”
Also introduced is the couple’s daughter, Natalie, played by Emily Heck, and her friend Henry, played by Trey Tycer.
“Henry is basically a stoner,” Tycer says to the nods and laughter of his fellow castmates. “But, he also has an understanding of people and their problems and who they are. He’s a shoulder for Emily to cry on.”
Emily is angry because her parents are wrapped up in her mother’s condition and in the secret of her brother.
Jacob Voisin tackles the role of Gabe, the brother and son. While his name isn’t revealed until later in the play, his presence is unmistakable. He’s there even when he isn’t.
“He’s all-American and confident — everything a mother would want her son to be,” Voisin says. “Yet he has a strained relationship with his mother.”
Cannella was right when he said “Next to Normal” doesn’t follow classic Broadway musical formula.
“It’s definitely cutting edge, and we’re so fortunate to be able to perform this show at Theatre Baton Rouge,” Dowies adds.
The show has an R rating, meaning it contains strong language.
“It definitely deals with some uncomfortable subjects in a powerful way,” Archer says. “But it is a powerful piece, and artists in theater know this show, so we had a big turnout for auditions for these six roles.”
Archer is a freelance director based in Portland, Oregon. He wasn’t able to make the trip to Baton Rouge for the auditions, so he did the casting through Skype.
“I was thrilled with the level of talent in Baton Rouge,” he says. “We chose six people with killer voices — all of them sound absolutely professional.”
And they’ll be singing their songs on the three-story stage, where laughter will mix with the darkness.
“There will be laughter,” Archer says. “There will be lots of laughter. The audience will be able to relate with these characters and what’s going on.”