Shana Perkins didn't know much about Nor•mal: the Musical when she signed on to be the show's choreographer. Once rehearsals started, she couldn't help seeing the parallels between the show's central character — a teenage girl with an eating disorder — and her own life. "This is me," Perkins said of the show, the current production from the Patel Conservatory Youth Theater. "I went through this. I left it behind. I never talk about it. But it's something that's always in my head."
Perkins is one of the area's best-known professional dancers and choreographers. She's the director of the dance department at Orange Grove Middle School in Tampa and she works regularly with Moving Current Dance Collective.
But years ago, when she was just out of high school, her anorexia was so severe she had to be hospitalized for two weeks.
After seeing the show during rehearsals, Perkins started talking openly about her experiences for the first time in a quarter-century.
"I had no idea it was going to open up these doors," she said.
Nor•mal: the Musical begins today and runs for four shows this weekend at the Straz Center's Shimberg Playhouse.
The plot revolves around a family that seems to have an idyllic life. In the opening song family members sing about their wonderful lives. Later, the revelation of the daughter's anorexia serves as a catalyst for the discovery of other cracks in the family's façade. They end up having to redefine their definition of "normal."
The play had an award-winning New York run some years ago, and then was retooled so it could be performed by school groups.
Perkins isn't the only one working on the production who felt a personal resonance to the subject matter.
Margo Stewart, a production intern, remembered one of her childhood friends.
"She's telling everyone she's okay, and telling herself that she's okay," Stewart said. "At the same time, she's spiraling down."
Stewart grew up in Brooksville and used to ride horses with her friend. When Stewart came to the University of Tampa, from which she recently graduated, the two kept in touch. But the correspondence stopped a couple of years ago.
"She'd get better, then she'd get worse," Stewart said. "Then she got so bad she was physically unable to write, and we lost touch."
For Perkins, it wasn't just the story of the girl with anorexia that struck home. "The whole family dynamic is very typical," she said.
People familiar with the show say it's powerful and valuable, and can help families talk about a problem that involves a level of denial that many can't imagine.
The first time the cast performed the show all the way through during rehearsal, Patel staff members were invited to watch. About 15 showed up, and the play's theme and message sparked an emotional conversation among them and the 15 cast members. Most had been touched directly or indirectly by eating disorders, and the play evoked strong emotions and memories.
Yet, Nor•mal is not a polemic, or even a tragedy. It's meant to be enjoyable for all audiences.
"It's ironic and funny," Perkins said. "There's a sarcastic note to a couple of the numbers.
For director Ami Sallee, the show was a rare chance to have all three departments at Patel — theater, music and dance — collaborate on a project, and to give local audiences a chance to see some fine young performers in a professional setting.
The young people in the cast, who range from ninth grade through college, are learning valuable lessons about musical theater while they're assimilating the show's message about anorexia.
"It's been so much fun," said 15-year-old Lucy Gutierrez, a Hillsborough High School student and a five-year veteran of the Patel's music program. She plays the sister of the girl with the eating disorder. "Everyone is so great, and everyone is so willing to work."
Marty Clear is a freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at [email protected]