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Avon Player's John Deierlein discusses upcoming production of 'Next to Normal'

"Next to Nothing" runs at the Avon Players Theatre May 23 to June7, 2014.
"Next to Nothing" runs at the Avon Players Theatre May 23 to June7, 2014.
Courtesy of Avon Players

Next to Normal” is one of those powerful plays that everyone should see… but the less one knows about the story, the more satisfying the experience will be. That said, you are urged to call the Avon Players of Rochester Hills right now and reserve tickets for the May 23 to June 7 production.

As a further endorsement, consider that the Pulitzer Prize committee gave it their prestigious Drama Award in 2010 – which is a pretty weighty endorsement for a musical. It’s appropriate, however, given this show’s heavy subject matter – which deals with a typical suburban family coping with the mother’s prolonged bipolar disorder. “Next to Normal” is fresh in both its approach to storytelling and its lyrical, lovely, haunting music. But this is not the kind of easy draw that ensures it will be a hot ticket with traditional community theatre audiences. We were curious about what gave this production’s director, Avon Players President John (JD) Deierlein, the confidence to tackle this show; he was nice enough to answer our questions.

Q. When did you first discover the play “Next to Normal” and what made you want to bring it to the Avon Players?

JD: I became aware of “Next to Normal” a couple of years ago just listening to some music online. The brilliant score of the piece pulled me in immediately. Some of the most beautiful contemporary musical theatre music that I have heard! I was hooked pretty quickly to these amazing songs, but then soon discovered an equally touching and sensitive story that went along with the score.

Q. Both the singing and acting roles are very demanding – weren’t you worried about finding the right cast?

JD: Every director will tell you that you always have nerves going into an audition. Even though we have an incredible amount of talented performers in the Northern Oakland/Macomb County area, I was concerned about finding the right performers to fit the roles including two young men (often difficult to find) with strong voices. My fears were put to rest fairly quickly, however, at our auditions when I saw the large turn-out of extremely talented adults and young people. Not only was it a delight to hear all of the talented performers present, but the large turn-out also spoke to the fact that “Next to Normal” is a favorite of talented actors and singers who seem to love the show as much as I do. We had several choices for each role at auditions which is always a great feeling, but feel like we have assembled a tremendously talent group of performers that will do this amazing show justice!

Q: This isn’t a typical Broadway musical. Without violating any spoiler alerts, what do you want to tell people about this play?

JD: “Next to Normal” is a Pulitzer Prize winning script (only the 8TH musical to ever win that award) that tells the story of one women's struggle with mental illness and how it affects her entire family. Theatre that broaches the subject of mental illness, however, is certainly not new and has been featured in tragedy (King Lear) as well as in comedy (Harvey) and even musicals, both light and dark (Sweeney Todd, Assassins). What sets “Next to Normal” apart for me is the extraordinary use of contemporary song to tell the tale. This rich score brilliantly conveys the emotions of what this family is going through and their tragic story, in a way that musical theatre lovers can truly appreciate. Next to Normal” is also set apart by not passing judgment or trying to sweep under the rug this important social issue. Rather, it presents mental illness as an everyday challenge that can be messy at times and take an enormous toll on a typical American family.

Q. And if patrons have seen “Next to Normal” before, what do you recommend about this specific Avon Players production?

JD: The Avon Players production of “Next to Normal” features a tremendously talented cast that bring the story to life with their beautiful voices and touching portrayals of these characters. What sets Avon apart from other productions, however, is the very affordable price of the tickets as well as the intimate space in which it will be performed. For those who haven't been there, Avon is a wonderful A-framed building set on the Northern end of Rochester Hills right on the Macomb border. The intimate nature of the auditorium makes for no bad seat in the building and an up-close and personal feeling with the actors on stage which lends itself nicely to “Next to Normal's” very personal feeling.

Thanks, John.

Editorial Note: The Avon Theatre is charming, intimate, and draws a loyal crowd. Book early to ensure your reservations. “Next to Normal” opens May 23 and runs weekends through June 7 – with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by contacting the box office at 248-608-9077. The performance running time is 2:15 with intermission.