URBANA — Actress Jodi Prosser has been telling friends if she dies after "Next to Normal" ends she'll die happy.
In the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical opening Thursday at the Station Theatre, she has the lead role of Diana Goodman, a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder.
"This, in my opinion, is the most complex role ever written in musical theater for a middle-aged woman," Prosser said before rehearsal Monday night. "She keeps going through all these different medications and various treatments. It really runs the gamut. You have to decide which crazy you are in any given moment."
Rick Orr, founder of the Celebration Company at the Station, is directing. He saw the production in New York and loved it.
"I just wondered if we could meet the challenge vocally and with the acting," he said. "I admired it from afar then and didn't realize until later I would attempt the challenge."
He had open auditions and then callbacks, rather than settling on actors he already knew. Prosser is a veteran actress and director at the Station, but she auditioned for the role like everyone else, he said.
For the other five characters — Goodman's doctor and family members — Orr chose relative newcomers to the Station: Allison Morse, Andy Hudson, Chris Johnson, Dylan Connelley and Steve Conaton.
Though the subject matter sounds serious, "Next to Normal" is both dramatic and funny, said Orr and others working on the show.
It's one of a handful of musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, in 2010. In his review of "Next to Normal," published in April 2009, a New York Times theater critic wrote:
"No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as 'Next to Normal' does. This brave, breathtaking musical ... focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.
"'Next to Normal' does not, in other words, qualify as your standard feel-good musical. Instead this portrait of a manic-depressive mother and the people she loves and damages is something much more: a feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts."
Brian Yorkey wrote the book and lyrics, and Tom Kitt composed the music. The musical began in 1998 as a 10-minute workshop sketch, "Feeling Electric," about a mother undergoing electroshock therapy and how that affects her family.
Yorkey took the idea to Kitt, who wrote a rock score for the short piece. Both began to work on other projects but kept returning to "Feeling Electric." Eventually they expanded it to a full-length musical.
"Next to Normal" debuted in 2008 off-Broadway, winning the Outer Critics' Circle Award for outstanding score. After opening on Broadway four years ago, it was nominated for 11 Tony awards, winning three: best original score, best performance by a leading actress in a musical (for Alice Ripley) and best orchestration.
At the Station, Alex Zelck Smith directs a five-piece band made up of guitar, violin, piano, bass and drums. Smith directed the music for the Station's production of "Rent" last year.
Because of the difficult score, Orr began rehearsing his cast in January.
"You won't find many community theater groups doing this because it's so challenging vocally and musically," he said. "I'm amazed at the talent that has come forth to give this musical to the community."
"Next to Normal" runs for two hours with intermission and will be presented over three weeks at the Station.
If you go
What: The Celebration Company presents "Next to Normal," a rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, directed by Rick Orr with music direction by Alex Zelck Smith.
When: 8 p.m. this Thursday through Sunday; May 1 to 5; and May 8 to 11
Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., U
Admission: $10 Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; $15 Fridays and Saturdays
Reservations: 384-4000; http://www.stationtheatre.com
Note: Free parking is available directly across the street courtesy of Save-a-Lot.