Rock Musical Humanizes Mental Illness

Louisville’s CenterStage theater company continues its season this week with the regional premiere of the acclaimed rock musical “Next to Normal.” The show explores the impact of mental illness on a suburban family.

Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s “Next to Normal” opened on Broadway in 2009 and won three Tony Awards, but when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010, it joined the ranks of only a handful of musicals to earn that distinction.

The musical has been praised for its unflinching portrayal of the Goodmans, a family that struggles to stay afloat while dealing with mother Diana’s bipolar disorder, as well as its powerful and thought-provoking approach to depicting mental illness.

“Pretty much everyone is affected by mental illness, whether directly or indirectly, and I think it’s important to put a human face to what these illnesses are and do,” says artistic director John Leffert, who also directs this production. “We don’t have to pigeonhole them into what our society calls normal.”

“It’s not a play about the illness—I want to be clear about that. It’s a play about the family and how the relationships are affected by everything that’s going in on their lives,” Leffert adds.  

“Next to Normal” opens Thursday at the Jewish Community Center’s Linker Auditorium and runs through September 16.

After each performance, CenterStage will accept donations for six local agencies that work with people affected by mental illness, including Brooklawn Child and Family Services and Seven Counties. Next Tuesday’s performance will be a special fundraiser to benefit Bridgehaven, where the artistic staff conducted research while preparing for the show.

“Next to Normal” is the second musical in CenterStage’s season, which opened with “Rent” in July. CenterStage will open “Ragtime” in October and “Company” in January, rounding out their season with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Deramcoat” in February and the subversive puppet musical “Avenue Q” in April.

Leffert says that although CenterStage is not strictly a musical theater company, in tighter economic times his audience calls for more musicals.

“We’ve chosen some shows that might be a bit more cutting-edge, might challenge our audience a little bit,” says Leffert. “We’re finding that our audience wants to see that edgy theater. Sometimes, though our older audience might want to see those classic musicals, but our younger audience doesn’t, really. We try to find a perfect mix.” 

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