Are you experienced: ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Next to Normal’ rock Portland

John Debkowski and Susannah Mars in "Next to Normal"/Owen Carey

By Judith Pulman

When I arrived at the World Trade Center Theater with my ticket for Spring Awakening, I wasn’t allowed to find my seat myself. I had to wait till we had a quorum of people who also had chosen to give up the comfort zone of the seats in the audience to sit onstage, close to the action. We all had hopes for something, though we weren’t sure what.

When enough of us had accumulated, we were led through the door to the stage, up a small stairwell, past the prop tables and through the wings to sit on half-painted wooden chairs that flanked both sides of a raised platform. There was a doorway and gap between the rows of chairs. It was a safe assumption that the actors would be very close to us.

There were more than a dozen of us on stage. A baby-boomer couple beside me talked about how, now, they’d like to sit in the regular chairs but didn’t know when it would begin and couldn’t leave the stage respectfully. They also were worried about the volume since the band was on stage too and the smirking drummer was so close to us.

The lights dimmed and the stage flooded with blue and purple light. Beth Scheppke stepped forth as Wendla, a girl who longs to know how babies are made and what it is to feel (pain, or otherwise), and she sang simply with the accompaniment of strings as she drew her hands across her breasts and below. Soon after, a clutch of other girls moved through the aisle beside us singing at full voice, drums bumping and bass thumping, about the mysteries of their sex. We were in for an experience.


Next to Normal, directed by Jon Kretzu at Artists Repertory Theatre and Spring Awakening, directed by John Oules for Live On Stage, are musicals that need to be experienced. Spring Awakening, the big winner at the Tony Awards in 2007, was adapted by Steven Sater and the rocker/composer Duncan Sheik from an 19th century German play. Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, has garnered its share of attention, too, including a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Call these shows what you will—rock opera, rock musical, chamber musical—but know that they will not leave your emotions untouched.

“Audiences are hungry for meaning over mere escapism,” Sam Barger writes in the program notes for Next to Normal. Sure, there’s the old musical theater exuberance—in Spring Awakening, the cast leap off their chairs and kick their heels out while harmonizing and in Next to Normal, John Debrowski hangs from the metal rafters and sings with a voice that races along with the drumbeat in the high-octane “I’m Alive”—but those are just slivers of the emotional range explored.

Next to Normal is a show about a family trying to endure, medicate, and understand the schizophrenia of Diana, the mother and wife in a middle-class household. The pendulum of mental illness swings back and forth throughout the two-and-a-half hour show; the audience watches it ripple through the small cast of six in a world where “It’s gonna be good!” one minute and the next, Diana attempts suicide. Susannah Mars shows us the central character’s complex and confused interior and sings with grace, power, and a unique sense of humanity. The set, formed by metal piping and planks of wood, reveals the house’s interior in a parallel way.

“This work forces you to examine what mental illness is—how it might be in your life but you just don’t realize it, which is the frightening thing about the show,” director Jon Kretzu explained. “There are so many degrees of illness that you realize that it doesn’t just occur in an asylum. It exists in so many places and families—I think the normality of the situation and the characters in the piece allow audience members to go ‘Hold on a second, I think I know what that is’ or ‘I know someone like that.’”

In my family, that someone was my father, who suffered from a mental illness doctors never cured or named. (Diana’s illness is also nebulous.) As the show progressed, I remembered how it was: He’d find a cure and throw it away that same night; he’d feel great Thursday and make a suicide attempt on Saturday; and how difficult it was to love him. When the curtain fell and three-quarters of the audience were weeping into their sleeves, I knew I wasn’t alone in seeing my life reflected in the characters’ struggles. Probably we were all surprised by how much emotion we felt; we aren’t used to musicals like Next to Normal.

“This is not a lifetime movie,” said Kretzu, “and it doesn’t end perfectly. It doesn’t veer to melodrama, doesn’t end with suicide, but goes to the real place—that in-between place where you find a way to go on, and it might not mean you end up happy, but then again, what’s happy? As Diana sings in one of the show’s last lines, ‘You find out that you don’t have to be happy in order to survive.’ I think that’s a very unusually realistic thing for a musical to say.”


Live on Stage's "Spring Awakening"/Dave Kinder/Kinderpics Photography

Spring Awakening takes place in a religious German community in the 19th century, though the language used is contemporary and the themes are viscerally accessible to anyone who has survived puberty. In a cast of thirteen, eleven are between the ages of 18 and 25. The tragedy of the show is between the adults (played exceptionally well by Jennifer Goldsmith and Blaine Palmer) and the adolescents: The adults won’t talk to their children about sex. So the kids figure it out themselves and the community is left to deal with the consequences.

John Oules, the director and founder of Live On Stage, said that this was the company’s most popular production: More than 140 actors auditioned for the thirteen parts. This is evident; there are no weak performers and all the voices blend together gorgeously—at times, I thought I was listening to a symphonic choir. Oules credited the high turnout at auditions to the actors’ personal connections to the show: “The themes come through the young actors in a very tender way. The kids are dealing with what the show is dealing with.”

There’s concert lighting, songs of adoration, curse words, a surprising story, energetic choreography, and microphones used by soloists when they sing their hearts out—the best of rock and roll is combined with musical theater. The set is fairly sparse, and it’s a good thing: “When you have a static set, you know that the performers have to bring it. They can’t hide behind a barricade that gets rolled in or a chandelier that falls from the ceiling,” said Oules.

These performers really do bring it, as do the performers in Next to Normal. They give you more than a concept to take home and more than great songs to hum the next day at work. Oules put it this way: “There are real stories where the boy gets the girl at the end, but it sometimes happens that the girl dies, and sometimes she turns out to be crazy. It’s crucial to have shows with tough themes—I think it adds up to a more emotional experience. There’s a group of people that need more than a Kiss Me, Kate, they need an experience to connect with.”

I’ll admit that after intermission, I left the stage and sat in the audience since I couldn’t understand the dialogue clearly from my wooden chair onstage. The move didn’t make me any less connected to the show or keep me from noticing the boomer couple, who also had moved down from the stage,  sitting beside me, a bit teary but gripping each other’s hands as the cast sang out, “I will sing the song of purple summer/And all shall know the wonder of purple summer.”

Editor’s Note: This spring ArtsWatch was in residence at the Attic Institute, talking about arts writing with a great group of writers. In upcoming weeks, stories they produced for the class will start appearing on ArtsWatch. This is the first one.

One Response.

  1. Ann Batchelor Hursey says:

    Thank you for these reviews that make me want to drive to Portland and sit in the audience…perhaps even in a comfortable chair, (smile).

    Your multiple viewpoints: actor, musician, poet and theatre buff are the perfect mix as reviewer.


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