After spending a few months as an understudy for main character Diana Goodman late in the Broadway run of “Next to Normal,” Catherine Porter is looking forward to finally stepping into the character’s troubled skin. She’s the lead in the Alliance Theatre’s version of the show, directed by Broadway veteran Scott Schwartz and running through November 11.
Mental illness is a central theme of the production, which is also a rock musical, with music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. It may seem like an odd combination, but it’s had a highly celebrated Broadway run and won actress Alice Ripley a 2009 Tony Award. It also nabbed a Pulitzer Prize, one of only eight musicals ever to do so.
Susan Booth, artistic director of the Alliance, feels that the production succeeds because of its sheer honesty in dealing with the dicey material. “The authors are utterly uncompromising in their honesty about what family and love can and cannot do when up against a traumatic challenge,” she says. “I think it’s that unblinking honesty that both gives the work its power and defies easy categorization.”
Porter acknowledges that “Next to Normal” can be hard to describe. “You really have to see it to understand it,” she says. “It has its funnier moments, especially in the sharp humor of Diana.”
The troubled Diana is at the heart of the production. She’s been diagnosed as bipolar and also suffers from hallucinations. Diana’s family is having a difficult time dealing with her situation. Sixteen-year-old daughter Natalie (Lyndsay Ricketson) is angry and rebellious that Diana can’t be the mother she expects her to be, taking care of everyone. Diana’s husband Dan (Bob Gaynor) initially doesn’t want to acknowledge that there’s a problem, then tries too hard to take care of his wife.
Porter stepped in to play Diana twice as an understudy, an experience she likens to being “shot out of a cannon.” Both times she found out only a few hours before she had to go on. “Just popping in at a moment’s notice, you can be rehearsed but you can never be as good as you want to be,” she says.
With the Alliance production, Porter has had time to dig into the role. She and the cast and crew have done research while in Atlanta, talking to various doctors and finding out the effects of specific drugs. She also found lots of material online, including YouTube clips of actual patients.
But it’s also a role that hits home: Porter’s sister has dealt with mental illness. “We try to find the humor in it, but there is so much sadness,” Porter says. At times, she says, “my sister doesn’t deal with reality.” She feels that the humor in “Next to Normal” alleviates some of the pain of what the characters face.
Born in New York, Porter is a former member of the Brian May Band and has been a backup singer for the likes of Queen and Chaka Khan. Her theatrical credits include appearing opposite Hugh Jackman in an Australian version of “Sunset Boulevard” and singing with Michael Crawford in “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.” She also has two record albums under her belt: 2002’s “Something Good” and 2009’s “Gems for Ruby.”
Diana is perhaps the most complex role the actress has ever played. “She is a very real person,” says Porter. “She can be anybody: a neighbor, your aunt. That is why this touches so many people. Diana is smart and she is trying to hold it all together, and some days it is fine and others it is not.”