The cast of the upcoming production of “Next to Normal” say this is one of the most technical, emotional and difficult shows they have ever been a part of.
At the same time, they say it is one of the most important pieces of art they’ve presented because it gives a no-holds-barred look at life with mental illness.
“It’s a really intense piece but it’s a really important piece,” said Director Matthew Michael. “We’re starting to get to the point where it’s OK to talk about mental health and it’s OK for people to ask for help.”
“Next to Normal” opens Friday at the Evergreen Playhouse in Centralia. Written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt, “Next to Normal” tells the story of a seemingly normal American family. Mom Diana (portrayed by Nicole Galyean) works hard to make a perfect home for her husband, Dan (portrayed by Rich Garrett) and their wise-cracking, high-achieving teenagers Natalie (portrayed by Amanda Copeland) and Gabe (portrayed by Kameron Bustetter). But under the surface, Diana has been battling manic depression for 16 years.
“She tries to maintain a normal life but over the years, it’s spiraled out of control and her family is just trying to hang on,” Galyean said of her character. “She doesn’t see the bigger picture. She’s so consumed with her grief and her needs, she’s lost herself.”
“Next to Normal” has a cast of just six. The only other characters besides Diana’s family are Dr. Fine (portrayed by Bruce Haasl, who also designed the set for this production) and Natalie’s love interest Henry (portrayed by Austin Bennett). Each of the characters is absolutely necessary because they are each impacted in some way by Diana’s mental health issues.
“Mental health is real and I think it’s something people like to keep closeted because of the communal judgement,” Galyean said. “It’s positive to bring this to light. It’s good for the audience to see what all the different characters are going through.”
As a musical, “Next to Normal” is unusual in that almost the entire show is sung and the scores are complicated to the point that some parts feature five-part harmony. The majority of the music has a contemporary rock feel and matches the actions on stage, so as Diana’s emotions spiral the music can take on a harder edge, almost like punk rock.
And while the Broadway version featured a three-story set, Michael said he opted for a more minimalist, contemporary stage for the Evergreen Playhouse’s production of the story.
“I think it’s one of those pieces where you have to really focus on the words and not so much on the set,” Michael said. “It’s very different from what we do here. I’m kind of asking the audience to break the walls down and go on a journey with us.”
Due to adult language and situations and references to drug use and mental illness, “Next to Normal” is considered PG-13. Garrett said the piece and its music have very raw, very emotional moments, but that it is that rawness that makes it such a memorable piece.
“This show pulls zero punches and then it hits you in the face at the end,” Garrett said. “It’s an important piece. I think it highlights this marginalized part of society. We understand that mental illness can be, if let go down its own course, devastating. But there’s also hope.”
Michael praised the cast of six of “Next to Normal.” He said they each bring incredible talent to the production and have really had to get vulnerable with a difficult subject to produce this show. He said there have been many rehearsals where a scene has brought someone to tears. It is those emotions Michael believes makes the finished product a strong piece of theater that will resonate with audiences.
“I feel like everyone knows someone or has a friend who has dealt with mental health and when you add music into it and the underscoring it gets very emotional and raw,” Michael said. “It’s a lot of personal things that hit very close to home.”
During the run of “Next to Normal”, theater-goers will have the opportunity to make a donation, which will benefit Cascade Mental Health. Evergreen Playhouse Board President Kris Garrett said monetary donations made during the show will be used to purchase items on Cascade Mental Health’s wish list, such as sleeping bags and tents. Garrett said anyone who is interested in making an in-kind donation of one of these items can contact the Evergreen Playhouse for more information about needed items.
“Next to Normal” is sponsored by Jeff Kingsbury. McMenamins and Timberland Bank are co-sponsors for this portion of the Evergreen Playhouse’s season.
If You Go …
What: Jeff Kingsbury presents “Next to Normal”
When: March 13-29, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Special pay-what-you-can artists’ benefit 7:30 p.m., March 19.
Where: Evergreen Playhouse, 226 West Center St., Centralia
Tickets: $15 adults, $12 students and seniors (this production is considered PG-13)