BARCELONA, Spain — When Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey began writing their 2008 rock musical, “Next to Normal,” they wanted to create a piece in which, according to Yorkey, they could “bring the audience into the mind of the main character.” That character, Diana Goodman, is a suburban wife and mother with bipolar disorder who grapples with the harrowing symptoms of her mental illness while trying to maintain a functional life.
The emotional musical not only won acclaim — it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 — but also resonated with theatergoers, 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 afflict not only Diana but also everyone around her.”
Now, audiences here are experiencing “Next to Normal” in a whole new way through an immersive, hourlong production that recently opened at the Festival Grec de Barcelona. This version, stripped of its props, sets and live orchestra, is being presented in a venue with an open-floor plan, a surround-sound system and 360-degree projections. The cast performs in English, with Spanish and Catalan supertitles, alongside the audience members, who sit in small cubes and become ghostlike witnesses sharing living quarters with the Goodman family.
Alice Ripley, who originated the part of Diana, has returned to the role, and she shares the stage with Andy Señor Jr., who plays her husband, Dan; Lewis Edgar, who portrays her 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 thrilling 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 is performing in the national tour of “Pretty Woman: The Musical”), and the recordings of his scenes make Pascal appear to be a larger-than-life figure, adding to the show’s surreal effect.
“I would venture to say that I am now the first actor to perform simultaneously in the United States and Barcelona in two different shows at the same time,” Pascal wrote in an email.
“Next to Normal” is being produced by the Grec Festival, 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 the worldwide creative director of the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, splitting his time between London and New York.) Struck by Diana’s emotional ordeal, he said he felt the story needed to be translated into other languages and began working on a Spanish-language adaptation during layovers. A determined del Campo soon found himself pitching his idea directly to Yorkey, and not long after, the Spanish-language production, titled “Casi Normales,” was onstage in Buenos Aires, where it has been running for 10 years.
But that wasn’t the end of del Campo’s involvement with “Next to Normal.” In early 2020, weeks before Covid-related lockdowns began, del Campo had what he called “a moment of electroshock” while visiting an artificial intelligence exhibition at the IDEAL Center d’Arts Digitals de Barcelona, which specializes in producing and showcasing digital arts projects. As he watched robots translate texts into visual displays, del Campo said he envisioned Diana in the number “Wish I Were Here,” in which she sings, “When the bolt of lightning crashes / and it burns right through my mind.”
Before long, del Campo approached Kitt and Yorkey with his idea for an immersive production, and they — surprisingly — agreed to compress their two-act, nearly two-and-a-half-hour musical. Some scenes of dialogue were cut, but all the big 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 production’s images, he added: “If movies are 4K, and really good-looking movies are 8K, this is up to four times that.”
During a recent rehearsal at IDEAL, the cast was practicing “Who’s Crazy”/“My Psychopharmacologist and I,” a song about adjusting Diana’s medication. 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 surrealistic world with ticking clocks, larger-than-life-size neurons floating 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 achingly emotional voice.
“When we first made [Diana], I didn’t know what it was going to be — the audience watched me figuring it out live,” Ripley said, reflecting on the musical’s Off Broadway run at Second Stage Theater in 2008. She drew from that same feeling of adventure in tackling this new production, though she said she found the experience disorienting at first.
“We actors are told never to give our backs to the audience,” she said, “and here all of those rules are gone.”
The team behind the immersive production figured it was a no-brainer to bring back Ripley, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Diana, even in the wake of a 2021 report in The Daily Beast in which she was accused of “having sexual conversations with a girl as young as 13 and puppeteering a cult-ish, obsessive fan base of vulnerable youngsters.” Ripley later denied the accusations in a statement to The New York Post’s Page Six. “It is a misinterpretation of my actions to say 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 about the accusations.
Musical purists might clutch their pearls at the idea of a beloved Broadway show being deconstructed, but, as Pittman put it, “We’re doing a ‘Next to Normal.’” And Barcelona might just be the perfect locale for this experiment. After all, it’s the city of Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, a towering basilica that’s been under construction since 1882 and a reminder that true masterworks can sometimes never truly be finished.
For Pittman, directing one of his biggest shows to date felt like a throwback to his Fringe days in Edinburgh, 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 underbelly,” he said, before adding: “I’ve never directed a show where you’re both building the process and the venue,” referring to the new technology that was installed at IDEAL to satisfy the production’s 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 it’s ever been,” Ripley said of her role in the production, which runs through Aug. 14. “I like to use my whole body to tell the story, and now I know people will be watching my hands or my heels or something.”
She added: “I have gone through hell and back since I last played Diana,” referring to life-altering events like the death of her parents and changes in her body and her voice, “but this feels incredibly liberating. We come to the theater to be impacted like that, and to make an impact ourselves.”