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Friday, November 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Next to Normal’ delves into complex issues

Alyssa Day and Nicholas Bailey are a married couple dealing with her mental illness in “Next To Normal,” a joint production of the Modern Theater and Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre. (Daniel D. Baumer)
Alyssa Day and Nicholas Bailey are a married couple dealing with her mental illness in “Next To Normal,” a joint production of the Modern Theater and Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre. (Daniel D. Baumer)

“Next to Normal” is a tale of familial dysfunction, and it tackles such complex themes as drug addiction, death, betrayal and mental illness. But this isn’t a stuffy, tear-jerking melodrama: It’s an irreverent rock musical. The acclaimed show hits the Bing’s stage on Thursday night, a collaboration between the Modern Theater and Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre.

“For me, it’s almost like you’re watching a magic show or a really clever comedian who’s touching on so many political issues, family problems, drug abuse,” said George Green, the Modern’s executive artistic director. “You don’t realize you’re getting that because you’re enjoying your time, but an hour later you realize, ‘That’s what they were wanting me to think about.’ It plants those seeds.”

Green is helming “Next to Normal” with Summer Theatre’s artistic director Jadd Davis, and he says their artistic partnership has been a rewarding one.

“It’s been a very smooth process,” Green said. “We wrote an artistic contract between the two of us … about vetoing opportunities. We laid out this whole outline, but we haven’t had to pull it out. Jadd and I both want to make sure that this is a fulfilling experience for the performers and technicians and everyone involved. … (It) lets performers feel that it’s safe to work with two different theaters, to have performers and patrons and technicians mesh.”

Written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, “Next to Normal” premiered off-Broadway in 2008. It went on to win three Tony Awards, including one for Alice Ripley’s lead performance, and became the first musical since “Rent” to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

“This show deals with a pretty sensitive topic,” Green said. “I think it found its success on Broadway because of its content and because of how well-written it is.”

The show concerns the seemingly idyllic Goodman family. Wife and mother Diana (Alyssa Day) has been struggling with bipolar disorder for years, and an overzealous doctor (Daniel McKeever) has recently prescribed her a new cocktail of medications. Her symptoms are intensifying, but her husband, Dan (Nicholas Bailey), tries to maintain blissful ignorance, while their teenage daughter, Natalie (Caitlin Duffey), begins experimenting with the same drugs her mother is taking.

Although the story breaks off into subplots involving the Goodmans’ son (Cody Bray) and Natalie’s blossoming relationship with a classmate (Evan Figuracion), Diana’s struggle with bipolar disorder remains front and center.

“It touches you individually – you see what this disease can do to someone. Look at what this woman’s going through and the pain she feels,” Green said. “Then you realize that everyone around her is being affected.”

The show is mostly sung-through, and the score features difficult vocal and musical arrangements. Green likens Yorkey and Kitt’s songs to those of Stephen Sondheim: They’re sometimes lyrically dense, and the melodies sometimes take unexpected directions.

“It’s really hard to do, both vocally and technically,” Green said, noting that his cast is up for the challenge. “The music’s extraordinarily difficult. … Vocally, there’s some really hard stuff to sing.”

And “Next to Normal” isn’t merely technically challenging. It’s also an emotionally taxing drama (the New York Times described it as “a feel-everything musical”), and though it doesn’t leave the audience with a traditionally upbeat ending, its final moments do suggest a glimmer of hope.

“We see some happiness at the end, and a bit of relief,” Green said. “But whether it’s individually or even as a society, we’ve got to go find answers to deal with mental illness. … Finding ‘normal’ is a challenge for many. Getting next to normal, as Natalie says in the play, would be OK.”

This story has been updated to reflect the correct ticket vendor.

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