The Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning Next To Normal returns to a Vancouver stage, as West Moon Theatre presents the rock musical about a mother struggling with worsening bipolar disorder and the effects it has on her family.
In a unique twist, with the exception of a single role, this new production will feature two casts, playing on different nights. A casting method director Chris Lam has used in past projects, it has allowed him to attract talent who may have scheduling difficulties.
In this Q&A, we find out more from actors Lee Mckeown and Marie West, who share the role of the mother, and the show’s director, Chris Lam.
This interview has been edited.
Tell us a little about your character.
West: Diana, was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder after a tragic event sixteen years ago. Struggling with the disorder, she is trying to navigate life with her family and various treatments and therapy to find normalcy.
After several adjustments to her medications, Diana tells her therapist that the current cocktail she has been prescribed leaves her feeling nothing, while he deems her as stable.
Distant toward her teenage daughter, Natalie, she begins to see her struggling as she once did. Wanting to share with Natalie, she can’t find it in herself, in her current state, to do so.
I’m not going to say any more to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say that this is a journey you want to follow.
What has been the most challenging aspect of this material?
Mckeown: There is just so much going on in her world. She keeps a smile on her face, pretending she is okay, when really, she is dying inside struggling with grief, suicide, drug abuse, and ethics of modern psychiatry. All this while trying to be the perfect house wife. Diana is constantly fighting for her life, a life she has never known.
West: I don’t think I can choose one., Technically speaking, there is alot of music in this show and it is tricky, complex, and awesome. As an actor, trying to learn and represent what a person goes through when they are bi-polar depressive and going through all that my character goes through. There are layers upon layers to explore in little time.
What has been the funniest part of getting the show ready?
Mckeown: Getting to swear on stage in a song, who doesn’t like that? Being quirky and off the wall as Diana tries to rediscover herself.
West: I can’t pinpoint any one thing yet, but we have lots of laughs throughout rehearsals, some pertaining to when we mix casts, and share husbands.
What do you want the audience experience to be?
Mckeown: I want the audience to experience everything that the family goes through; the highs the lows, and everything in between. You don’t have to be normal to be okay.
West: Right before a show starts and I’m backstage in the dark waiting for the music to begin and the story to start, I often have this moment that happens in my head where I say to the audience, let me take you on a journey, and with this show I feel like the invitation would be, come with me on this journey.
I really want the audience to experience the show as though they are in the room with us feeling the atmosphere in the air, and riding the waves with us. I also hope that the audience will be inspired to take time after the show to reflect on what normal is, what normal should be and to ponder if they walk the world authentically or how someone else says that they should.
There was a well-regarded Arts Club production of Next to Normal a few years ago; are you exploring or focusing on something different in your production?
Lam: The first time I ever saw a live production of Next To Normal was the Arts Club version and various clips of the original Broadway show. This production is really pared down, really stripped of some of the bells and whistles to really put the responsibility of storytelling on the performer. Much of my work can be described as minimalist, but I want to really focus on relationships and story. I don’t think the show is without a few surprises, but people will have to come out and see.
Where did you find your casts, have worked with any of them before?
Lam: Yes, some of them are people I have worked with before and some new. Some came in with a particular skill like playing piano, and singing in tandem with their audition piece. The show is double cast except for one actor, and based on who came out to audition, I’m happy with the mix of diverse representation and skill in tackling this score.
What has been the biggest thrill in rehearsal?
Lam: Digging into the Tom Kitt’s music and Brian Yorkey’s text. They have created a very succinct and rich field for the actors to play in. Conversations with my designers and cast have been very illuminating.
What do you want audience to leave remembering?
Lam: Next to Normal is an optimistic piece, and one of the things I love about the show is that the resolutions are ambiguous and uncertain. I’m always fascinated and in awe of the resiliency of the human spirit and really if you are not afraid to ask for help, and fight for life, love, and balance this story offers you an opportunity to see that.
Next To Normal plays Studio 16 (1555 West 7th Ave, Vancouver from February 8-17. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.
Below is a list of performances for each of the two casts:
February 8, 10 (matinee), 13, 15, 17 (matinee)
Diana: Lee Mckeown
Dan: Jeremy Leroux
Natalie: Jennifer Shannen
Gabe: and Frankie Cottrell
Henry: Max Kim
Doctor Fine/Doctor Madden: Sean Anthony
February 9, 10 (evening), 14, 16, 17 (evening)
Diana: Marie West
Dan: Mark Wolf
Natalie: Katrina Teitz
Gabe: Daren Dyhengco
Henry: Blake Sartin
Doctor Fine/Doctor Madden: Sean Anthony