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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 18, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 3
Madness, set to music - Contemporary Classics' Brandon Ivie directs Next to Normal
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Madness, set to music - Contemporary Classics' Brandon Ivie directs Next to Normal

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

NEXT TO NORMAL
BALAGAN THEATRE (at Erickson Theatre)
February 8 - March 2


Balagan Theatre and its theatrical home of Erickson Theatre, near Seattle Central Community College, have begun focusing with a vengeance on musicals. The trend started four or so years ago with The Full Monty, but now Balagan is upping the ante by mounting two major productions within a month of each other: Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Moore Theatre (now through Jan. 27), and Next to Normal at the Erickson beginning in February.

Brandon, who established his own theater company, Contemporary Classics, when he was still in college(!), is co-producing and directing Next to Normal after a very intimate involvement with creators Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt as the musical went to Broadway and to scads of critical acclaim.

SGN asked Brandon to describe the musical and his involvement, as he works in rehearsal with an amazing local cast. Yorkey, the book (script) and lyric writer, worked for years at Village Theatre, so he's been embraced as a local.

A LONG FRIENDSHIP
'I've known Brian Yorkey since I was 15 or 16 when he was still working at Village Theater and he cast me in my first professional show,' he says, 'and over the years Brian and I worked on Village Originals, which he ran. During that time, I saw the first workshop of his musical called Feeling Electric' - which would become Next to Normal.

'They had just won a grant from Jonathan Larson Foundation,' Brandon continued. (Larson wrote the musical Rent, but died the night of its preview. His family funded this grant program for emerging musicals.) 'It started as project when Tom and Brian were at the BMI Workshop in New York, a songwriter's workshop. They were assigned to write a 10-minute musical.

'They met at Columbia at school together and started writing songs for the varsity show, a student-generated show. So, they joined the BMI workshop. Brian was up late one night watching TV and saw something about how electroshock therapy (ECT) still happens and that the majority of those who get electroshock were middle-aged suburban white mothers, and he got intrigued and they decided to write the 10-minute project.

Brandon said the initial versions of the musical were somewhat different from the final script: the musical had more fantastical elements where Diana, a manic-depressive, hallucinates. He says, 'The thing that was working the best in the show was the family struggle and that's what they focused on after they had the Off-Broadway run. It had its fans but didn't get rave reviews. Their producer, David Stone, wanted to give them a chance to truly finish it, so he hooked them up with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and they took their feedback from Off-Broadway and made some rewrites, and the show that ended up on Arena Stage is basically the final version of the show.'

INVITATION TO NEW YORK
As the production headed to Broadway, Brandon got a most exciting offer: to join Yorkey and Kitt and assist them. Aside from getting coffee, SGN wondered what he did while 'assisting.' Brandon describes a detail-intensive process double-checking key chronologies in the play.

'I did lots of super detail-oriented work, making sure that someone in one scene says, '16 years ago this happened' and then we have to make sure that 16 years have passed and lines up. That the timeline makes sense.'

His intimate work on the production is coming in handy during rehearsals here. 'I've been able to go back to my notes as we work on this version, since people ask, 'How long has she been in therapy?' It's nice that when the actors had questions - 'Is this my first therapy appointment or twelfth?' - I already had answers there.'

This will be a Seattle premiere. Usually, one might expect a big theater, like the 5th Avenue, to do a regional premiere like this, but Brandon is excited 'because it's being done in such a small space. I think the intimacy of the story is exciting. Balagan Theatre has a different audience so we're able to do it sooner and introduce it to a new audience. Especially an audience that can't normally afford a big Broadway tour version of it. That's definitely both Balagan's and Contemporary Classics' M.O. - really great affordable theater.'

EQUITY INVOLVEMENT
While this production may well sell out, they're upping the ante regarding how much they're spending by including three Equity-contracted actors. It's not just that Equity actors get higher rates of pay (or get paid at all sometimes), but union contracts include mandatory payment for health and welfare costs. It is a newer benchmark for Balagan, though Contemporary Classics has included a union actor from time to time. Seattle actors who long to make a living acting will likely applaud this development.

Brandon is enthusiastic about his cast. 'Things that excite me about the show are Beth deVries - she's been a fireball during rehearsal. She doesn't usually get to play manic-depressives in rock musicals. And Auston James - he's excited to work on darker material because he's been doing so much as Seattle Children's Theater.

'And the kids in the show are actually kids. Keaton [Whittaker, who plays the daughter] is 16, Ryan Hotes is 17 who plays her boyfriend, and Kody Bringman is 21 who plays the son. It brings a whole other layer to see an actual 16-year-old dealing with her crazy mom than someone in her early 20s playing a 16-year-old. It feels much more honest. Ryan McCabe is just rock solid as the doctors. We've been having a blast!'

For more information, go to www.balagantheatre.org/n2n.html, or call (206) 329-1050.

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