Carrnivale Theatrics doesn't believe in doing things the easy way. In the past three years at the New Hazlett Theater, the company has taken on some of musical theater's most dramatic and challenging works -- "Sweeney Todd," "Ragtime" and "Into the Woods" -- and this year ups the ante with "Next to Normal," the haunting rock musical that takes on family dysfunction, grief, mental illness and the survival of the human spirit.
"We're an odd entity because we're not a small professional theater but at the same time I wouldn't consider us community theater; we're employing Equity actors," said Justin Fortunato, who founded Carrnivale in 2009 with fellow Point Park alum Maggie Carr and his longtime buddy, Bobby Neumeyer, of Duquesne University.
"We like to look for shows that have some meat to them. I think there is something meaningful about the whole musical theater canon, but ... we like to go for the shows that remind us of plays with music rather than full-fledged Americana musicals. We saw 'Next to Normal' in New York a couple of years ago with the original cast and fell in love with it."
Once the rights were secured, the next challenge for the company was casting its one, big annual musical.
The lead role of Diana was a Tony winner for Alice Ripley. For Carrnivale, the choice is Daina Michelle Griffith, a Point Park alum who has graced most of Pittsburgh's professional theater companies and has a small role in "The Dark Knight Rises."
"Bobby and I agreed if after auditions, we didn't find the right group of people, we wouldn't go through with it." Among the 150 people auditioning for the play's six roles was Ms. Griffith, who Mr. Fortunato called "a staple of Pittsburgh theater and a wonderful actress."
"The show is incredibly demanding, especially vocally, especially the Diana role," Mr. Fortunato said. "It's pretty emotionally demanding, too. The show runs about two hours and four minutes, not including intermission, and there's about 40 songs and it takes you on this huge journey. To be able to do it truthfully is a really difficult challenge for an actor, but they've all risen above my expectations."
Leon Zionts, a producer of the production through Front Porch Theatricals, started as an actor in Carrnivale's "Ragtime" two years ago. He knew of the Neumeyer-Fortunato team as childhood friends who had been putting on shows since high school at the Seton Center.
"It was almost like the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland, let's put on a show. And they did it with passion, they did with exuberance and energy and commitment and focus. Then they wanted to do meaningful musicals ... things with heft that challenged them and the minds of the viewer."
With "Ragtime," he watched the two men, with their talented friends from Point Park and other local colleges, do "19 different jobs" with a cast of 45 while creating a professional atmosphere in which their passion was contagious.
"That impressed me greatly, and I volunteered back then, if you guys ever need any help, I'll be the grown-up in the room," Mr. Zionts said. "And at that time, Bruce [Smith] and I had success at with 'Only Me' at the Kelly-Strayhorn, and we said, if you give us enough lead-time, we'll help you become a 501(c)3 or hook you up with a physical agent, and then we can raise some real money, and then you guys can focus more on the artistic and less on business."
For "Next to Normal," Front Porch joined forces with Carrnivale so Mr. Fortunato and Mr. Neumeyer could do all of the "production lifting while they did all of the production."
"Next to Normal" is being created with a bigger budget and a smaller cast than previous shows, which raised a different set of challenges for Carrnivale. Mr. Fortunato said there are homages to the Tony-winning Broadway production at the New Hazlett, but that audiences would see the "Next to Normal" they're expecting, "with a couple of twists."
As they were getting down to the wire for opening night, Mr. Fortunato was asked why he would toil for more than six months to put on one big show.
"We always ask ourselves that, especially as we get closer to a show and the hours get longer and the paycheck keeps getting cut," he said, laughing. "There's something really redeeming, something wonderful about being able to put an entire world together."
More summer theater
Leon Zionts is involved in two summer shows as an actor. He's part of a cast of eight in Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh's musical revue "That's Life," in its second week at Congregation Rodef Shalom's Levy Hall. Shows start at 7:30 tonight, 6:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday; details at jewishtheatrepgh.org. Mr. Zionts also is playing Judge Turpin in "Sweeney Todd" at Stage 62 in Carnegie July 19-22 and 26-29. More info at www.stage62.org.
Locals at Jimmy Awards
Western Pennsylvania's representatives at the fourth annual National High School Musical Theater Awards -- Gene Kelly Award winners Nathan Pool and Brooke Tate of Avonworth, and Mancini Award winners Ryan Vander Wagen of Hopewell and Erica Durham of Central Valley -- have been in New York this week, reading for The Jimmy Awards Monday at the Minskoff Theatre on Broadway. The Western PA quartet is among 60 participants who survived regional competitions that involved 1,000 high schools and 50,000 teens. Finalists for the Jimmys, produced by the James Neiderlander Foundation with the Pittsburgh CLO, travel to New York City for five days of private coaching and rehearsals in preparation for Monday's awards show.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.