Atlanta Art Reviews by Susan K Asher
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Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-Winner
‘Next to Normal’ Opens at the Alliance Theatre

2012 October 22

“Next to Normal,” which ran for nearly two years on Broadway during the height of the recession, opens at the Alliance Theatre this week.

The Tony Award-winning rock musical revolving around a mother struggling with bipolar disorder, drug abuse and ethics in modern psychiatry, will feature Catherine Porter (former stand-in for the same role on Broadway) as Diana, a suburban mom struggling with depression; Bob Gaynor (Broadway – “Leap of Faith,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “Aida”) as her husband Dan; Cary Tedder (Broadway – “Memphis, The Times They Are A-Changin’”) as their son Gabe, as well as Lyndsay Ricketson, Googie Uterhardt and Jordan Craig of Atlanta.

“Next to Normal” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning three for Best Original Score (Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey), Best Orchestration (Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt), and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Alice Ripley). It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Earlier this year, the Alliance Theatre delivered a stellar production of  Sondheim’s Tony Award-winner “Into the Woods.” (Click here for my review.) I’m betting that this production of “Next to Normal” will be just as good.

Scott Schwartz, who directed Tovah Feldshuh in the Tony Award-winning one-woman show on Broadway, “Golda’s Balcony,” which played at the Alliance last year, is directing. The son of famed composer Stephen Schwartz, (“Wicked,” “Godspell,” “Pippin,” et al.), Scott Schwartz graduated from Harvard and has directed for numerous theaters around the country.

I spoke with him over the phone.

Had you always planned to direct or work in the arts?

Schwartz: Like most people who get into theater,  I imagined I’d be an actor. I went to a small private high school with 38 kids in my graduating class. The kids got an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do in a larger school, and there was a wonderful drama teacher who gave us opportunities to do different things. By the end of high school I knew I wanted to direct. I studied psychology in Harvard to learn about other things. Harvard had an extracurricular drama program where students got to direct a lot. There are between 30 and 40 shows done a semester, and students write, direct, design, and act. It gave me an opportunity to learn by doing. I directed seven shows in college. I had no directing or acting classes. There was no drama program then. I took a lot of English courses about the history of theater and playwrights.

What is your personal style for directing?

Schwartz: I don’t subscribe to any individual theory for directing or acting. I try to learn and be exposed to many ideologies and methods, and borrow from them for whatever ways it works for the project. I’ve had “viewpoints” training by Ann Bogart and use certain viewpoints techniques in “Next to Normal”  where I have the actors become very aware of their relationship wtih each other in their personal space. The actors  connect to each other not just in lines but in terms of their physical movements and how they play off each other to move or not.

Who did you work with that influenced you most in your directing?

Schwartz: There are a couple of directors: John Caird, an associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and a well- known co-director of (the Broadway productions of) “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Les Misérables.” I got to direct “Jane Eyre,” helping him get it ready for Broadway. He worked as equals and collaborators with actors. He has a way of approaching scene work and describing what he is looking for to achieve a big picture.

What was your life like growing up?

Schwartz: My dad was always writing and playing piano. Mom (former actress Carole Piasecki) was a wonderful singer. Well-known people would come over to the house. We lived an hour away from New York in Connecticut, and sometimes I’d go with my dad to rehearsals. It was a very happy childhood.

Any other areas of the arts you plan on entering?

Schwartz: I’m very happy with my career now. I wrote a show, an adaptation of a novel “My Antonia” (Willa Cather’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel). It’s about immigrants in Nebraska in the later 1800s. (His father composed the music for the adaptation, which played in Ventura, Calif., and in Los Angeles.) Maybe someday I’ll write something again. I might like to be an artistic director at a theater one day.

What do you do when you find yourself working with actors who just aren’t performing well?

Schwartz: I feel that it is my job to have a clear idea of the story we are trying to tell and work collaboratively with my actors to tell the characters’ emotional journey. Each show has its individual challenges. I aim to honor the writing and material. I never give up, and I love working with actors and performers to help them find the most fully realized performance possible. I draw on techniques, and pick and use tools as a director as best as I can. I love talking with them (actors) and finding ways to make performances as rich as possible.

“Next to Normal” runs through Nov. 11 at the Alliance Theatre.

 

 

 

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