Jessie Roberts on Directing ‘Next to Normal’ at Taking Flight Theatre Company

Director Jessie Roberts

I was not expecting to direct Next to Normal now or any time soon when I was told about the opportunity with Taking Flight Theatre Company (TFT). Bobby McCoy, our Music Director, and I interviewed with TFT’s director selection committee and got the nod. My next thought was, “OMG, now what do I do?” I had never seen the show. I was glad of that since I don’t like to have seen shows recently that I am going to direct so I won’t be influenced by another production – even a Broadway production. The show is enormous; the music, challenging. So I listened to the cast recording over and over and read the libretto a million times and fell in love with the show. With its pathos, courage, quirkiness and moments of humor and heartbreak, it is a director’s dream come true.

After the shock wore off, first order of business was casting. TFT put notices out, Bobby and I contacted everyone we knew. We got a lot of younger people – people who could play Natalie and Henry. We got a few Diana possibilities and a few candidates for the double doctor roles. We had very few men audition for Dan. There were a lot of other musicals being cast at the same time so talent was spread thin throughout all of northern Virginia. But all we needed was one great person in each role.

The choices were difficult since the people who came all the way out to Loudoun County to audition were great – most difficult, of course, was Diana. We gave the role to Holly McDade. She is a newcomer to the area but she has a voice that doesn’t quit and a commensurate acting ability. Our Natalie is Claire O’Brien, a highly accomplished actress with a voice to match. The Goodman family was almost complete with the casting of Danny Devera and his golden voice as Gabe. But we were still without someone for the role of Dan. Keith Miller came out and sang for us in the scene shop – we couldn’t move the grand piano out of the shop because it was blocked by the Genie® lift. And he read for us in the hallway outside of the dressing rooms. As he read and sang, Bobby and I checked off the characteristics on our Dan wish-list. So Keith became our Dan.

And the role of Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend, went to Michael Bigley. I had worked with Michael before – he was Matt in The Fantasticks production that I directed for Dominion Stage more years ago than either of us would like to admit. The double role of the two doctors was cast but a couple of weeks into the rehearsal period, the actor was offered a role with a professional company for actual, real, cash money. It was understandable that he made the difficult decision of going with that offer. So now we needed a doctor. Scott Pafumi, the theatre teacher at Herndon Middle School and adjunct theatre professor at Loudoun NOVA, stepped in to fill the dual roles. And so we forged ahead with a fine cast.

Dinner at the Goodmans - left to right: Dan (Keith Miller), Natalie (Claire O’Brien), Diana (Holly McDade), Henry (Michael Bigley), and Gabe (Danny Devera). Photo by Harold Bonacquist.

The rehearsal process itself was an adventure. Shelley Kramer, a good friend of mine, a fine actress in her own right and a clinical psychologist practicing in Fairfax, VA is an enormous fan of the show. One thing that impressed her about it was how accurate the depiction of Diana’s condition and its effect on her family was. I’d like to think I can put together a good theatre production, but I know nothing about bipolar, depressive, delusional conditions so I brought Shelley on board as our clinical psychology consultant.

The first week of rehearsals was spent in talk sessions with Shelley. We met at her office about five times and just talked through the show, the characters, Diana’s condition and the family dynamic that was created by her condition. It was invaluable. Very late in the rehearsal process, when people had good handles on their characters, we had the “family therapy session that should have happened but didn’t.” Everyone came in character and Shelley conducted the session as she would have with real patients. There were some sharp, prickly moments, some revelations and some tears – it was an amazing acting exercise.

Dinner at the Goodmans - left to right: Dan (Keith Miller), Natalie (Claire O’Brien), Diana (Holly McDade), Henry (Michael Bigley), and Gabe (Danny Devera). Photo by Harold Bonacquist.

Then there was this incredible music to be mastered. Bobby is a fabulous music director but he recognized that he would need help putting together the music and the voices so we brought in Adriana Hardy – voice coach, director and actress. She had one or more private sessions with each of the actors to help them find the tools they would need to get their voices through this demanding show. It really paid off – everyone grew and learned from her coaching. And the vocal sound of the show is fantastic.

I was so fortunate to have Suzanne Maloney agree to design sets, costumes and props. That would give all the physical aspects of the show a unity of vision created by a talented designer. Jeff Auerbach – another refugee from my Dominion Stage Fantasticks production in which he filled the role of Mortimer – is the lighting designer and he has given the show deep, dramatic lighting that beautifully serves the overall feeling of the production. Jon Roberts, my talented husband, is the sound designer. There are only a few sound effects in the show and he has created them with great success. But he is in his element mixing the pit band and the voices to optimum effect. His dream of bringing the band through the sound board has come true with this show, and he is combining the instruments with the voices so they complement each other. And he is the mastermind behind the video segments. The pesky details of administration and tech support were covered by producer Denise Perrino and the members of the Advisory Team of TFT.

And so, we open. TFT and all of us involved in the production are honored to present the northern Virginia community theatre premier of Next to Normal. I wish there was some dramatic story I could tell about how TFT got the rights and how the timing worked out so they are the first to present it, but there really isn’t one. TFT applied for the rights. They weren’t available so the company picked another musical for the 2012 season. Then rights became available and TFT was able to produce the show. They put out a call for a director and the rest, as they say, is history. Soon, the entire production will be history – but, as the box containing the librettos and scores from Music Theatre International says, “WARNING! Wonderful memories inside.” And as said in the show – “memories don’t die.” This show will live in our memories forever. I hope you can come and see it and have it live in yours as well.

The Goodman family remembers - left to right - Gabe (Danny Devera) (in window), Dan (Keith Miller), Diana (Holly McDade), and Natalie (Claire O’Brien). Photo by Harold Bonacquist.

Next to Normal plays through Saturday, June 16, 2012 at Taking Flight Theatre Company – at NOVA’s Loudoun Campus’ Waddell Theater – 1000 Harry Byrd Highway, in Sterling, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.

 

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