BY CARY GINELL
Occasionally we venture out of the sanctity of Ventura County to see how some of our locally raised theatricians are faring in their acting careers. Today we visit with Harrison Meloeny and Michelle Lane, two performers familiar to Cabrillo Music Theatre audiences (both were in Mary Poppins last year) about a fabulous opportunity to appear in the Pico Playhouse’s new production of the Tony Award-winning smash, Next to Normal, in which Michelle will play Diana and Harrison will play Gabe. The show opens August 19 and plays through September 25.
VCOS: So who got cast first?
HARRISON: She did.
VCOS: Did you bring Harrison in, Michelle?
MICHELLE: I did. I recommended Harrison because they were having a hard time finding a Gabe. I knew that Harrison was going to be perfect, so I recommended him, and sure enough!
HARRISON: Yes, it’s actually a pretty cool story. I was pretty hesitant at first because I’m actually still in another show right now called I Love You Because, which is running for one more week at the Hudson. I’d taken on two shows before and it was too much for me, but this has been a dream role for me since the show started so I thought I would try to make it work. And Michelle was pushing me along and really wanted me to do it. So I came down to the audition, and we actually car-pooled. We ran the lines before and got all prepared and I did my audition, thought I nailed it, and then I was waiting outside and they were still auditioning for another role – and one of the producers came out and saw that I was still outside, and he said, “Oh, Harrison, you’re still here!” And I said, “Yes, I’m just waiting because I car-pooled with Michelle” and he said, “Well, you can come in.” So I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” So I went in and they offered me the role.
MICHELLE: They said, “We have a question for you, Harrison. Would you like to be in our show?”
HARRISON: And I said, “YES!!!”
VCOS: Michelle, you tell me why you think Harrison is ideal for Gabe and then, Harrison, you tell me why Michelle is perfect to play Diana.
MICHELLE: I worked with Harrison on Mary Poppins and his voice is amazing. But I also felt like he has the emotional bandwidth of kind of understanding this very complex character and he’s such a great actor, both as a comedian and dramatically, but vocally, I was initially thinking, “Yes. Harrison!” But also, his look is great. He doesn’t really look like he could be my son but, oh, whatever…He looks more like my grandmother (laughs).
VCOS: I think Harrison can do anything. The first role I saw him in was as Milky White, the cow, in Into the Woods. (all laugh)
HARRISON: I was a smoking Milky White, like the Chick-Fil-A cows.
MICHELLE: Now that I’m getting to rehearse with him, what I’m getting to witness is quite exceptional. What he’s doing acting-wise and emotionally, and just the storytelling that is in his eyes is pretty impressive, so it’s been wonderful working together again.
VCOS: OK, your turn, Harrison.
HARRISON: I have to say that when Michelle came to me for Next to Normal, she was the main reason I came in to audition, besides wanting the role. Michelle is the most talented person I’ve ever worked with. When I did Mary Poppins with her – she played Mrs. Banks – she played a role that I feel that can be played simply. It’s given some substance but it’s not a huge, beefy role. And I thought she stole the show. In “Being Mrs. Banks,” she showed such raw emotion and vocally, she’s just out of this world. Every time that song came on I would go back stage and listen. You didn’t know about this but I would always do that. I didn’t even have to watch you to know what you were doing acting-wise because it was so clear, the way you expressed yourself through the text. So when I heard you were playing Diana, I thought, well, this show is going to be incredible. It’s going to be mind-blowing with you in that role. What you were saying about my eyes – I feel the same about your eyes because when I’m acting with her on stage, I barely have to do anything because I just look at you and you affect me so much, more than any other actor has ever. It’s just such a powerful thing working with you because you bring so many different dynamics to this part.
VCOS: Speaking of dynamics, in most shows, there is one feeling that permeates the show. You know it’s a comedy, you know it’s a drama – there’s a feeling or a mood. This show is a roller coaster ride that goes back and forth, from comedy to tragedy to horror – it covers everything. How do you adjust to those changing moods?
MICHELLE: I don’t know. I think that’s kind of part of the fun of it. You just kind of jump on and go for the ride. A friend of mine had asked me if this was a good idea to get into the psyche of this woman. Because she knew how far down into this character’s rabbit hole I could go, and I said, “Yes!!” Put me on that roller coaster ride and send me screaming with my arms up!” That’s how exciting it is. I don’t get wrapped up in the depressing part and nobody really wants to watch that, quite honestly. But I think the ride is what is so interesting. I do a lot of scriptwork, but if you don’t plan too much and you just kind of go for the ride, especially with the extraordinary talent that we have in this show, you don’t really need to do too much because I can just look at Harrison or I can look at Nick Sarando, who’s playing Dan, and he looks at me with his eyes – he must do that to you, too. He sings a couple of ballads where he’ll look at me and I’ll just melt. I just can’t help myself…
HARRISON: He has this sensitivity that just kills you.
MICHELLE: It’s disarming. So the roller coaster is what’s so fun about it. Right now, we’re at that stage in the rehearsal process where we’re just figuring out what twists and turns we’re going to take.
VCOS: Harrison, do you add anything to your character?
HARRISON: Yes, in a way. I like doing character roles and comedy so I think I soften him in that light, but our director has been pushing me to play him more All-American and straight-arrow. He has to be the stable one to show all the contrast because all the other characters are so broken. So if I were to make some very bold choice, which I could do, I think it would distract from what is already there.
MICHELLE: I went through the audition process and they already knew that they wanted me and were pretty much looking for the other characters around me. So I watched some of the choices the other guys were making and it was creepy. And it wasn’t lovable. It wasn’t something that, as the mother of this person, I felt any kind of connection to. It was really just in your face. He has a softness about him that really makes her crumble. It makes her weak. He makes her weak. But you have to have that.
HARRISON: He sings, “I am destruction, decay, and desire.” Those are kind of the harshest lyrics he sings, and I play them with an attack sense, but that’s the farthest I can go with that. If I bring that energy anywhere else, it won’t be likable. Thomas wants me to be the very likable high school student.
VCOS: This is a show that plays both in large and small theaters. In a large theater, the tenseness of the emotion really shrinks the theater. How much more powerful is this in a small theater like the Pico Playhouse?
MICHELLE: I think this show was meant to be played in a small theater. I think they actually moved it when it was on Broadway.
VCOS: I saw it at the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street.
MICHELLE: I think that’s the larger place, but wherever they started it, it was a larger house, so the second it opened, they moved it to the smaller space. In a 99-seat theater, I think that is the ideal situation for this production because it is such a mind-blowing journey that you have to be that close to get into the mind of the actors on stage, especially Diana. Each of the characters goes through such an emotional journey, and I think if you’re watching it as stage pictures, you lose all of it. This show is meant to be in a small space.
VCOS: Are you guys preparing to be emotionally drained after every performance?
HARRISON: I think to some extent.
MICHELLE: So far, I lose it every single night. Not on stage, but when I exit. I take one last look at Gabe and I walk out and I just lose it, legitimately.
VCOS: It’s described as a “feel everything” musical.
MICHELLE: At the same time, there is a disconnect and there is this element of going into someone else’s shoes, so it’s not emotionally draining in that way. I don’t leave the theater and feel exhausted. I actually find it exciting. And the end takes such a positive upswing that you can’t help but feel good about your life, no matter how much crap you are going through.
HARRISON: For me, it’s more physically than emotionally draining. I think your character has more of an emotional thing. Mine does too, but it’s not anywhere near what you go through. You really go up and down a lot!
VCOS: Tell me about the music part of the show.
MICHELLE: There’s five or six pieces.
HARRISON: It’s a rock band.
VCOS: In the original staging that I saw, the set was designed like The Hollywood Squares TV show, with the members of the band separated in different “rooms” of an abstract, vertical set that represented their house.
MICHELLE: In this one, they’re all in one place, and they’ll be behind us on stage. As a musician, you want to feel connected as a unit.
VCOS: Maybe by separating them, they wanted to contribute to this disjointed feeling, the manic-depressive feeling of the show.
MICHELLE: That IS clever. Interesting. I like that. Maybe we should try it that way sometime!
Next to Normal opens at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles on August 19. For tickets, visit www.picoplayhouse.com.