'Normal' musical melds songs and drama

Capital Playhouse production filled with song – plus loss, grief, mental illness

Contributing writerJanuary 25, 2013 

  • NEXT TO NORMAL

    When: 7:30 tonight and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Capital Playhouse

Brian Tyrrell is known for directing thought-provoking and intense dramas, plays such as Harlequin Productions’ 2010 “Rabbit Hole,” a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner about a family coping with loss and grief. What then is Tyrrell doing directing the musical “Next to Normal,” opening Thursday at Capital Playhouse?

Well, first, he’s not a stranger to musicals, directing one each year as part of his work as a theater professor at Centralia College. And this show gives him an opportunity to work with his wife, Jana Tyrrell, who plays the lead role.

But the pieces all fit together once you learn “Normal” is not your normal musical: Rather, it’s a thought-provoking and intense musical. It also is a Pulitzer and Tony winner about a family coping with loss and grief — and mental illness.

“It’s an anomaly when it comes to musical theater,” Tyrrell said. “How often do you see a musical about mental health? It more resembles the plays of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams than the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein or Stephen Schwartz or Sondheim.

“But it works. It works in just the best possible way.”

“This isn’t ‘Carousel,’ ” said playhouse managing director Lauren O’Neill. “This is a thinker.”

The 2008 musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt centers on a woman with bipolar disorder and its effect on her family.

It was only the eighth musical to win the Pulitzer. “Rent” was the seventh. “That was an anomaly, too,” Tyrrell said. “We tackle very human issues here that musicals until recently have shied away from.”

“Next to Normal” has something else in common with “Rent”: Both shows are sung through, with only incidental spoken dialogue.

“ ‘Next to Normal’ does not ... qualify as your standard feel-good musical,” New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote in a 2009 review. “Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical.”

It’s that depth of feeling that attracted Tyrrell to this musical, his first at a major Olympia theater.

“The older I get, the pickier I get,” he said. “When this project presented itself to me, I jumped at the chance. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to direct ‘Oliver,’ for instance, but this one is just so special.

“I had seen it on Broadway,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is a musical that comes awfully close to being “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or “Glass Menagerie.”’”

The opportunity to direct his wife was a plus, too. (Playhouse audiences may remember the two working together in last season’s “Fiction.” They played a married couple, and Brian Tyrrell co-directed with Peter Kappler.)

Tyrrell said he is relishing the opportunity to immerse himself deeply in the show, even at home.

“This is one of the shows that it’s hard to leave behind,” he said. “Once it permeates your skin and your brain, it’s hard to put it down.

“Beyond the three hours a day that we are in rehearsal, we get to carry on the conversation at home as well.”

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