BY SANDY STAGGS
On this very same day last year Sara Tolson was fine-tuning her harmonies as one-third of one the greatest female music acts of all time, the Andrew Sisters, in the biographical musical “Sisters of Swing” at Centre Stage. As Patty Andrew, she sang lead on nearly three-fourths of the two dozen hits by the siblings, but her latest part as Diana Goodman, she said, is by far the most challenging dramatic role of her career to date.
Diana is a wife and mother of two children in “Next to Normal,” the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning rock musical by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt that explores her struggles with bipolar disorder and the effects that her illness and its management have on her family.
A far cry from The Market Theatre Company’s recent bouncy “Bend and Snap” musical “Legally Blonde,” “Next to Normal,” is a more morose, serious and altruistic affair, as it gracefully addresses a dark and complex subject matter with brutal honesty.
Directed by Market Theatre co-founder Noah Taylor with Music Direction by Julia West, “Next to Normal” co-stars some familiar names at the Market: Christopher Rose as Diana’s husband Dan, Matt Groves as son Gabe, Kelly Crittendon as daughter Natalie, Drew Kenyon as Natalie’s love interest Henry, and Craig Smith as Diana’s psychiatrists.
To say the least, “Next to Normal” is not your typical happy-go-lucky, feel-good musical. Diana is a “bipolar depressive with delusional episodes,” a proper diagnosis of extreme alternating periods of elation and depression at the time this musical was written in 2008. But the American Psychiatric Association has since re-classified her incurable mental illness as “bipolar I with psychotic features,” as Diana, without giving away a major spoilers, does experience hallucinations.
The authors do, however, sprinkle the show with a little comedic relief, Tolson told Carolina Curtain Call in an interview just before a recent tech rehearsal.
“The music is beautiful and heartbreaking,” she said. “It represents her inner monologue. When she is manic and upbeat, it reflects that,” as in the peppy “It’s Gonna Be Good.” But the music also conveys her depressive episodes (“Catch Me I’m Falling”).
I don’t feel anything…..the peppy “It’s Gonna Be Good.” jazz score pop, the “I Dreamed A Dance” “Didn’t I See This Movie” everyone, doing the as much as she can….the dynamics of the family……gorgeous orchestrations, rolling piano riffs,
Tolson, who also battles depression and anxiety herself, said she has learned so much about mental health and mental illness from her exhaustive research for this role. In fact, the cast has been consulting throughout rehearsals with a psychiatrist to distinguish the differences between classifications such as schizophrenia verses manic depression.
And Tolson has studied the work of stand-up comedienne Maria Bamford, who is known for her self-deprecating humor about her own struggles with mental illness.
She said she never realized the vicious cycle of bipolar disorder and “the so many variations.”
“A lot of times people are misdiagnosed,” she said. “I sympathize with their struggle” [to find the proper diagnosis and treatment].”
“I don’t want to give too much away but Diana does go on and off her meds, which is a common misstep for those struggling with bipolar disorder,” she added.
“We know mental illness is a disorder, and often think maybe it can [be alleviated] if you exercise right or get treatment early on,” she said. “But after studying bipolar disorder, sometimes there is nothing you can do. There is definitely a genetic link. But after doing this show, I know it’s not anyone’s fault.”
“I want people to understand that this disorder affects everyone in the family and it’s so hard not to blame that person and to sympathize with the struggle people are going through,” she added. “People can’t always make the right choices and say the right things.”
“Next to Normal” is part of the Anderson Theatre Festival and runs July 7-23 at the Market Theatre, 110 W Federal St. in Anderson. Shows are Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. All tickets $10 at the door or online at http://www.themarketanderson.org.