“Next to Normal” isn’t your typical feel-good Broadway musical. Tackling issues of mental illness, loss and drug use, this winner of both Tony and Pulitzer Prize awards is edgy and dark.
Enter Musical Theater Heritage, known for boisterous, fun musical comedies, most recently “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Big River.”
So, naturally, producing artistic director Sarah Crawford thought “Next to Normal” was the perfect fit. The show opens Thursday.
“It’s not our normal fare,” Crawford said. “Our mission is to celebrate classical musical theater, but part of that is celebrating the future, because that mission ends if you don’t look ahead.”
They’re certainly looking to the future with “Next to Normal,” which creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey birthed from a 10-minute musical about a woman receiving electroshock therapy. The show revolves around the suburban Goodmans, who seem to have it all: a loving father and mother, a brilliant, overachieving daughter and a handsome, athletic son.
As the show progresses, though, it’s clear that things aren’t quite what they seem.
Central to the show is mother Diana (played by Ashley Pankow), who battles mental illness as she tries to put on a brave face for her family. Crawford called it one of the most difficult roles in musical theater because of the skill needed to portray the contradictions of bipolar disorder.
“I broke it down to just be as specific as possible and really find out where her reality is as opposed to what’s really happening,” Pankow said. “You find levels. It’s so easy to go big and give it all, but we can’t do that every time.
“It’d be too easy,” she added. “And I don’t want to do that. Easy isn’t real.”
Musical Theater Heritage’s style is semi-staged, meaning it’s more of a concert-style musical than a full-fledged show with sets. Actors rarely interact face-to-face, instead presenting their story forward to the audience. Crawford said the cast breaks down the script and music in detail, focusing on the words of the show. She called the style unique and groundbreaking, especially in the growing Kansas City theater scene.
The style also highlights the vocal skills of the cast, which includes opera singer Ben Gulley, who graduated from the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. He travels internationally and is part of a two-man operatic tenor team, Gulley/Granner (as in opera star Nathan Granner).
For this show, Gulley had to adapt from opera to a heavily rock ’n’ roll score.
“It’s different levels of heightened reality,” Gulley said. “Musical theater is right above reality, and it demands you to be much more emotionally astute and sensitive, versus opera, where opera’s conveying the entire story through the music first. With this it’s a partnership much more so, where the music kind of springs out of an emotional moment.”
He experiences plenty of those moments as he portrays Dan, the father who tries to keep his family in one piece — all the while hiding a secret of his own.
“It’s not one of those classical, old-school-style roles,” he said. “He’s got this amazing facade. So much of his survival is based on keeping his wife and his daughter afloat, that he’s just put up these blinders. He has these overly positive moments where he’s convincing himself and everyone else that it’s going to be OK.”
Crawford and both actors agreed that even though the show addresses difficult topics, audience members will be able to relate to a character in the play, whether it’s personally or someone they know. Or, said Pankow, they may just be happy to see that their family is not as dysfunctional as what they’re seeing onstage.
“Nothing about this show is typical,” Crawford said. “If we do it right, it’s a hole-in-one.”
▪ “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Aug. 9-14 at Starlight Theatre, 4600 Starlight Road. The winner of the 2014 Tony for best musical tells the story of a man who decides to speed up his family inheritance by getting rid of the eight relatives in line ahead of him. See kcstarlight.com.
▪ “I’m Not Rappaport,” Aug. 10-29, presented by Kansas City Actors Theatre at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Road. The play follows two men sharing tall tales of their lives to mask the reality of their aging. See kcactors.org.
Kate Miller: 816-234-4077, @_Kate_Miller_
Musical Theater Heritage’s production of “Next to Normal” runs Aug. 4-21 on the third floor of Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. There is a language advisory, and tickets start at $17. See musicaltheaterheritage.com.