Floor plan

An immersive ‘Next to Normal’ debuts in Barcelona

BARCELONA, Spain — When Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey began writing their 2008 rock musical, “Next to Normal,” they wanted to create a play that Yorkey said could “get the audience into the spirit of the character. major. This character, Diana Goodman, is a suburban wife and mother with bipolar disorder who struggles with the harrowing symptoms of her mental illness while trying to maintain a functional life.

The moving musical not only won acclaim – it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 – but also resonated with audiences, playing on Broadway at the Booth Theater from 2009 to 2011. In his review, Ben Brantley wrote that the show “gives full weight to the confusion and ambivalence that plagues not only Diana but everyone around her.

Now audiences here are experiencing “Next to Normal” in a whole new way through an immersive one-hour production which recently opened its doors at the Greek Festival in Barcelona. This version, stripped of its props, sets, and live orchestra, is presented in a venue with an open floor plan, surround sound system, and 360-degree projections. The cast performs in English, with Spanish and Catalan surtitles, alongside audience members, who sit in small cubes and become ghostly witnesses sharing living quarters with the Goodman family.

Alice Ripley, who originally played Diana, returned in the role, and she shares the stage with Andy Señor Jr., who plays her husband, Dan; Lewis Edgar, who plays his son, Gabriel; Jade Lauren, who plays her daughter, Nathalie; and Eloi Gómez, who is Nathalie’s love interest, Henry. But some of Ripley’s most exciting exchanges occur with an actor thousands of miles away: Adam Pascal, who plays her “rock star” doctor, and who, in a nod to the pandemic, holds his sessions with her via Zoom. Ripley and Pascal rehearsed their scenes together in Florida (he’s on the nationwide tour of “Pretty Woman: The Musical”), and recordings of his scenes make Pascal appear as a larger-than-life figure, adding to the spectacle. surreal effect.

“I would venture to say that I am now the first actor to perform simultaneously in the United States and in Barcelona in two different shows at the same time,” Pascal wrote in an email.

“Next to Normal” is produced by Festival Grec, Layers of Reality and Pablo del Campo, who first saw the musical in 2010 and became obsessed with it. (At the time, he was working as global creative director for advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, dividing his time between London and New York.) Struck by Diana’s emotional ordeal, he said he thought the story had to be translated into other languages. and began working on a Spanish adaptation during layovers. A determined del Campo soon found himself pitching his idea directly to Yorkey, and soon after, the Spanish-language production, titled “Casi Normales,” was on stage in Buenos Aires, where it has been touring for 10 years.

But that wasn’t the end of del Campo’s involvement with “Next to Normal.” In early 2020, a few weeks before the start of the Covid-related shutdowns, del Campo had what he called “an electroshock moment” while visiting an exhibition on artificial intelligence at the IDEAL Center d’Arts Digitals in Barcelona, ​​specializing in the production and presentation of digital arts projects. . As he watched robots translate text into visual displays, del Campo said he imagined Diana in the “Wish I Were Here” number, in which she sings, “When lightning crashes / and that burns in my mind.”

Shortly after, del Campo approached Kitt and Yorkey with his idea for an immersive production, and they — surprisingly — agreed to compress their nearly two-and-a-half-hour two-act musical. Some dialogue scenes were cut, but all the great musical numbers remain. The British director Simon Pittman was brought in to oversee the project, and Søren Christensen and Tatiana Halbach, who work under the name Desilence, created the visuals (including abstract landscapes meant to evoke Diana’s inner state). “There’s something to look at everywhere you turn,” Christensen said. “It’s like ‘Dogville’ meets a music video.”

Reflecting on the richness of the footage from the production, he added, “If the movies are 4K and the really good movies are 8K, that’s up to four times that.”

During a recent rehearsal at IDEAL, the actors were rehearsing “Who’s Crazy”/”My Psychopharmacologist and I,” a song about Diana’s medication adjustment. At first, the actors practiced their blocking in a completely empty space. Then the wall-to-wall screens lit up and the actors were transported to a surreal world with ticking clocks, larger-than-life neurons floating around like jellyfish, and pills resembling colorful raindrops falling from the sky. “We need more pills!” Halbach exclaimed at one point.

The other element flooding the space was Ripley’s painfully emotional voice.

“When we first made [Diana]I had no idea what it was going to be – audiences watched me find out live,” Ripley said, reflecting on the musical Off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater in 2008. She was inspired by that same feeling of adventure to tackle this new production, although she said she found the experience disorienting at first.

“We actors are told never to turn our backs on the audience,” she said, “and here all those rules are gone.”

The team behind the immersive production thought it was a no-brainer to bring back Ripley, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Diana, even following a 2021 report in The Daily Beast in which she was accused of “having sexual conversations with a girl as young as 13 and being the puppeteer of a hauntingly haunting fan base of vulnerable young people”. Ripley later denied the charges in a statement on page six of the New York Post. “It is a misrepresentation of my actions to say that I manipulated anyone, and more shockingly, that there was abuse,” she wrote in a statement.

During a break from rehearsals last month, Ripley said she had no further comment on the charges.

Music purists might seize their pearls at the thought of a beloved Broadway show being deconstructed, but, as Pittman said, “we do a ‘Next to Normal.’ “And Barcelona might just be the perfect place for that experiment. After all, this is the city of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, a towering basilica that has been under construction since 1882 and a reminder that true masterpieces sometimes can never truly be finished.

For Pittman, directing one of his biggest shows to date felt like a throwback to his Edinburgh Fringe days, which began in 2005, when he received rave reviews for his direction of “Hospitals and Other Buildings That catch fire”.

“It’s like being in the belly,” he said, before adding, “I’ve never run a show where you build both the process and the place,” referring to the new technology that has been installed at IDEAL to meet production requirements. Needs. (According to del Campo, the show’s budget is close to $1.2 million.)

It’s been nearly 15 years since Ripley first inhabited the character of Diana. “Playing Diana is definitely more fun than ever,” Ripley said of her role in the production, which runs until August 14. “I like to use my whole body to tell the story, and now I know people are going to look at my hands or my heels or something.

She added, “I’ve been through hell and back since the last time I played Diana,” referring to heartbreaking events like her parents’ death and changes to her body and voice, “but it feels incredibly liberating. We come to the theater to be impacted like that, and to have an impact ourselves.