The cast of Next to Normal, l-to-r: Daniel Barrington Rubio (Doctor(s), Jennifer Boesing (Wife), Danny Cozart (Husband), Kevin Singer (Son), David Crane (Boyfriend) and Celeste Kamiya (Daughter). Photo: David Weiland

Hundreds of high schoolers have honed their acting chops at Berkeley’s Youth Musical Theater Company (YMTC), now in its 13th season. The company recently kicked off a new concept, YMTC+, featuring more experienced players, and it is putting it into practice with a production of the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning musical Next to Normal, debuting today at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater.

With book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and a rock-centered musical score by Tom Kitt, Next to Normal tackles how one suburban household copes with mental illness. Its critical acclaim puts it in the same category of some of the all-time greats like South Pacific, Sunday in the Park with George and Hamilton.

A return to the roots of theater: Talking with Jennifer Boesing

YMTC’s artistic director Jennifer Boesing. Photo: YMTC
YMTC’s artistic director Jennifer Boesing. Photo: YMTC

Berkeleyside spoke with Jennifer Boesing, YMTC’s artistic director — who for this play steps across the footlights to play the leading role of Wife — and, below, Susannah Martin, the company’s first guest director.

This is the first production by YMTC+, a new venture by the company. What is the idea behind YMTC+?

Jennifer Boesing: For several years now, I’ve been dreaming about extending the YMTC scope to become a home for local professionals, teaching artists, and our alums, together with our regular student members, in which the more seasoned players become mentors for those learning the craft(s) of musical theater. It’s almost a return to the roots of theater companies or troupes in which the younger members were apprenticed to an older hand.

Talk about some of the distinctive features of this approach. What, for example, does “shadow casting” mean?

Jennifer Boesing: In shadow casting, six members of the youth company are “apprenticed” to the six professional cast members and follow them throughout the entire process, for example by being included in the table talk discussion the director and cast have at the beginning of rehearsals and note sessions as the project moves forward. Also, the shadow cast has its own rehearsals each week, and its own director (a YMTC alum it happens), and will have a full dress rehearsal to an invited audience during the run. Shadow casting is a form of education — a much more in-depth version of being an understudy.

Why ‘Next to Normal’?

Jennifer Boesing: Normally YMTC likes to do outlandishly large productions with the big show-stopping numbers and a large cast, as a means of involving as many students as we can. But, given its small number of characters (only six), this particular show is an ideal starting point for YMTC+. However, I also have to say that the book itself is beautiful. And the music is rock. It’s edgy, which is not new to YMTC. Our students do really well with complex, rich material, and Next to Normal is certainly that.

Is that what won it the three Tonys and the Pulitzer?

Jennifer Boesing: It has the perfect combination of diving into a subject matter that had never been touched before in musicals and being extremely well-crafted. It went through many iterations from its starting point as literally a 10-minute song to its final debut on Broadway. Both the writing and the music show high levels of skill and grace. As we delved into the material, we found that it wasn’t “just” about mental illness — it’s about loss and grief and how we as a culture handle those life traumas and when we don’t handle them what can happen.

How do you feel about been directed rather than director?

Jennifer Boesing: I love it! I trained as an actor and singer and eventually came to directing sort of by accident. But I’ve always kept my hand in performance whether in drama or opera. And I have the greatest admiration and respect for our show’s director, Susannah Martin, whom I’ve been trying to get involved with YMTC for years.

It’s a feel-everything musical: Talking with Susannah Martin

Guest director Susannah Martin. Photo: YMTC

Guest Director Susannah Martin has a slew of directing credits and awards to her name and is perhaps best known locally for her highly praised productions for the Shotgun Players, where she is a company member.

How did you come to be involved with YMTC?

Susannah Martin: I have known both Jennifer Boesing and David Möschler (YMTC’s resident musical director) for a long time. We had worked together using the shadow cast concept on a production of Sondheim’s Assassins at Shotgun in 2012. And when they asked me to come over for Next to Normal, as their first YMTC+ production, I jumped at it.

What was the special appeal of this show?

Susannah Martin: It’s a very challenging work, musically, lyrically, the subject matter, making tremendous demands on the performers — and the audience. It doesn’t fall into some of the standard tropes about mental illness or black-and-white thinking on the issue, which fits well with me. I’m a shades of gray kind of person in terms of the kinds of shows I like to do.

Some people may find it difficult to watch.

Susannah Martin: To be honest, the first act, especially through the music — its rhythms, harmonies, melodies, arrangements — makes me just a little uncomfortable or anxious. There’s a famous line about the show from the New York Times’s review: it’s not your standard feel-good musical, it’s feel everything. At the same time, the characters are very human, people we can recognize in our everyday lives. And the book, the lyrics, the music are very unified in how they tell their story. The treatise of the musical, for us as the audience, is that the only way around our traumas is straight through them.

Is that what gave impetus to the decision to hold an audience “Talk Back” session after the Saturday May 12 matinée performance which will include two local psychotherapists?

That idea originally came from Jennifer and Laura Soble (former YMTC board chair and a practicing psychotherapist in Oakland) but I fully support it. I think it spreads the dialogue, to involve the psychotherapy community and get a conversation going with the audience. I hope that anyone who does feel uncomfortable with the subject matter or our approach to it will come and ask questions.

YMTC+’s “Next to Normal” opens Friday May 3 at the El Cerrito High School Theater with a pay-what-you-can (at the door) preview. The run will last to the Sunday May 13 matinée. The Saturday May 12 matinée performance will be followed by an audience “Talk Back” session that will include Berkeley psychotherapist Leslie C. Bell, Ph.D., LCSW, and Nancy Ebbert, M.D., Psychiatrist at First Hope Program, Contra Costa County Health Services. Full details and tickets at YMTC’s website.