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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Far from ‘Normal’

Civic drama takes a musical look at bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is not exactly a traditional subject of a Broadway musical – which helps explain why Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s “Next to Normal” won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The Pulitzer citation calls it a “powerful rock musical” that “expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.”

Now, less than two years after that citation was issued, the Spokane Civic Theatre’s Firth Chew Studio Theatre has snagged the regional premiere of “Next to Normal.”

As a theater experience, said director Yvonne A.K. Johnson, this show is anything but “normal.”

“I think it changes lives,” Johnson said.

It gives the audience a window into a suburban Portland family, average in every way except for one shattering fact. The mother, Diane, has bipolar disorder. She has a tenuous grasp on reality and sometimes has manic episodes.

Her mental illness has unpredictable and often startling effects on everyone around her. Her husband, her teenage children and her doctors all are forced to deal with the challenges and consequences.

“You will be more empathetic after seeing this show,” Johnson said.

Civic arranged for Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke, who has written extensively about her struggles with bipolar disorder, to talk to the cast and crew during one rehearsal. They learned that Duke had lived through many of the issues dealt with in the musical.

“Everything she said during those two hours was right on the spot,” Johnson said.

The story is told almost entirely through a rock score – 37 musical numbers in about two hours. Music director David Brewster presides over a guitar/bass/drums/keyboard combo.

The score is harder-edged than the typical musical – and so is the theme. Theater critic Ben Brantley of the New York Times called “Next to Normal” the opposite of a “feel-good” musical. He called it a “feel-everything musical, which asks you, with operatic force, to discover the liberation in knowing where it hurts.”

“I love how one family’s crisis becomes every family’s crisis and how all the dirty laundry is left out for everyone to see,” said the original Broadway director, Michael Greif, as quoted on the Pulitzer Prize website.

“Next to Normal” won three Tony Awards and played for 773 performances on Broadway. It closed in 2011 and went on national tour.

In the Civic production, Heidi Santiago plays Diane, Mark Pleasant plays her husband, Charles Fletcher plays her doctor and Robby French and Morgan Keene play her teenage children.

“Next to Normal” is already having a profound effect on the cast and crew. Every day in rehearsals, a member of the cast takes a moment to light a candle, in a nod to the show’s final number, “Light.” It’s a ritual they believe they need every day.

“It represents hope to all of us,” Johnson said.