Most Crown Uptown Theatre patrons may be surprised that the newest offering, “Next to Normal,” won’t be the usual frothy Broadway dessert to cap the evening.
Instead, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical will be a solid, meat-and-potatoes tale with thought-provoking depth and complexity that will won’t be dismissed or quickly forgotten.
And that’s just the way that Crown’s artistic director Matthew Rumsey wants it in order to establish his theater as a major arts player on the Wichita scene — as well as a pleasant evening out.
“We are known for doing dinner theater, but we also want to be known for theater theater,” said Rumsey, who is in charge of revitalizing the Wichita landmark after it reopened under new ownership last Christmas. “There was some trepidation to doing this cutting-edge show in Wichita, but I felt we needed to try it to put us on the map. We are looking to encourage younger audiences, and this puts us right on the front lines.”
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“Next to Normal” is a musical about mental illness. It features a suburban mom’s long-running battle with bipolar disorder and how it affects the seemingly normal loving family around her on a day-to-day basis. With book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and rock/jazz music by Tom Kitt, the show explores the lows of depression, hopelessness, anger, loss and thoughts of suicide. But it also swings to the highs of love, trust, faith and optimism that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Consider some of thoughts of the character’s thoughts:
“Give me pain if that’s what’s real. That’s the price we pay to feel.” “You find out you don’t have to be happy at all to be happy you’re alive.” “Some hurts will never heal, some ghosts are never gone. But we go on.”
The show is adult in both themes and occasional language, and Crown officials say it’s not suitable for children under 11.
The new musical is reminiscent of both Stephen Sondheim’s jazzy, esoteric riffs and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s punchy ballads — although it also has a solid rock beat. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won three, notably best score. This Crown Uptown production will be a Kansas and regional premiere — a first for the theater.
At the center of the maelstrom is Diana (played by Shannon McMillan), a suburban wife and mother who stays “normal” with the help of therapists and drugs. Years before, she suffered a crippling emotional loss and hasn’t been able to move beyond it. She puts on a good facade for outsiders, but her husband, daughter and son know that she is losing the battle.
“Diana is an incredible woman. She is human and vulnerable, but she has an incredible strength,” Wisconsin native McMillan said. “It’s scary and exciting and humbling to play her because she is so emotionally intense as she faces her demons.”
McMillan, who describes herself as “a hopeless romantic” who tries to see the silver lining to everything, said that she can’t just put the character aside after the show; the residual emotions linger.
“It’s very draining,” she said. “It has made me a lot more aware of mental illness. It reminds me of the mother of a dear friend and her struggles. I applaud her for facing it.”
Brad Grimmer, a New York actor and veteran lead singer for Celebrity Cruise Lines, is making his Crown debut playing Dan, Diana’s loving and desperate husband who often is living in denial that his family is headed toward rock bottom.
“He wants to do what’s right,” said Grimmer, a Milwaukee native and graduate of the Lawrence Conservatory of Music. “Dan promised Diana that he would always love and support her, but he’s discovering that he has too many balls to juggle.”
Like McMillan, Grimmer said his character is so intense that he can’t just leave it at the theater.
“I’ve played some dark characters before, but this is one of the heaviest emotionally,” he said. “I worry a little about letting go of the character. It’s a challenge to find ways to decompress.”
Sarah Grover plays Natalie, and Colin Anderson plays Gabe, the troublesome — and troubled — teen children of Dan and Diana.
“Natalie is a typical teen who is trying to just get through life being as perfect as possible,” said Grover, who studied in New York and performed the role of Natalie in the Colorado premiere for which she won a supporting actress award. This is her first Crown appearance. “She is a brilliant pianist, but she occupies herself with distractions.”
For Anderson, also making his Crown debut, the role of Gabe is case of love/hate.
“At first, I thought Gabe was a little bit evil, but he’s really just selfish and kind of childish — even at 17. He just wants everybody to pay attention to him,” said Anderson, who understudied the role for the Oklahoma premiere and is finishing up his theater degree at Oklahoma City University. “He does cause problems. His mother is who she is because of him. He’s a strange character because he doesn’t seem to know any better. He wants to be needed. He’s almost addicted to his mother.”
Rounding out the cast are Regan McLellan as Natalie’s puppyish, would-be boyfriend, Henry, and Ross McCorkell as Diana’s various doctors. Louisiana native McLellan is best remembered as the Scarecrow in Crown’s “Wizard of Oz.” McCorkell, an ensemble member for numerous Music Theatre of Wichita shows, is finishing his theater degree at Wichita State University.
WSU grad Philip Taylor is music director for a six-piece combo whose individual musicians will be scattered throughout the set. Nick Probst is props master and assistant director to Rumsey. Costumes are by Emily Valley.