What is ‘Normal’?

February 15, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

‘Next to Normal’ tour is homecoming for Issaquah native Brian Yorkey

Actors Jeremy Kushnier (left), Alice Ripley and Asa Somers perform a scene in the national 'Next to Normal' tour. By Craig Schwartz

Long before the Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, and longer still before director Rob Reiner indicated interest in a possible film adaptation, the blockbuster musical “Next to Normal” originated as a barebones reading at Village Theatre.

Now, almost a decade and a cartful of statuettes later, the national “Next to Normal” tour is about to reach The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. The musical opens Feb. 22.

The opening represents a homecoming for the author and lyricist, Issaquah native and Issaquah High School graduate Brian Yorkey. “Next to Normal” precursor “Feeling Electric” received a reading at the 2002 Festival of New Musicals and a 2005 workshop at the downtown Issaquah playhouse.

“So much of my theatrical life is in Seattle, and people know my work more as a director and from other shows, and for them to have a chance to see ‘Next to Normal’ — which is maybe the thing that I’m proudest of that I’ve done — is really exciting for me,” Yorkey said.

The rock musical about a family on the edge and tackling mental illness opened on Broadway in early 2009. Then, came a cavalcade of honors for show: Tonys for the lead actress, score and orchestrations; a Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and a national tour.

Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt journeyed to Los Angeles last fall to prepare for the tour to launch.

“Once that thrill subsided, there is a little bit of terror at how the show will be received outside of New York,” Yorkey said.

“Next to Normal” opened to strong — and in some cases, effusive — praise in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

‘Next’ up

David Armstrong, executive producer and artistic director at The 5th, attributed strong ticket sales due to buzz from the Broadway run and actress Alice Ripley re-creating a Tony-winning performance on the tour as Diana Goodman, the bipolar disorder-addled matriarch at the center of the musical.

“We often have people in their Tony Award-winning performances prior to going to New York, but we rarely get them on the other way around,” Armstrong said.

The ensemble cast includes actress Emma Hunton as uptight daughter Natalie, a teenage sparring partner for mom Diana.

“I’ve never been part of a cast that’s sort of been this well-chosen for each other,” she said. “I think we bring out the best in each other.”

Village Theatre alumna Caitlin Kinnunen is the understudy for Natalie on the national tour. The young actress recalled the chance to see “Feeling Electric” during the Issaquah workshop. Despite the revisions, she said, “Next to Normal” shares the same DNA as the earlier musical.

“If a teenage girl comes to see it, she can connect with Natalie and understand what she’s going through,” Kinnunen said. “If a husband or a wife comes to see it, they can connect with Diana and Dan.”

“Next to Normal” closed on Broadway in January after 21 previews and 733 performances.

“People kept comforting me and trying to ease my grief,” Yorkey recalled. “I kept trying to see if I was lying to myself or not, but I didn’t feel sad. I know that the occasion was bittersweet. The saddest thing to me was saying goodbye to that group of people who I won’t see all the time.”

If you go

‘Next to Normal’

  • The 5th Avenue Theatre
  • 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle
  • Feb. 22 to March 13
  • Show times vary
  • $28 – $83
  • 206-625-1900 or www.5thavenue.org
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