‘Next to Normal,’ a musical about mental health, takes the stage at Monongalia Arts Center

MORGANTOWN — Kevin Dean understands the topics “Next to Normal” addresses can be tough to talk about, and may seem even stranger to sing, but the director said that’s exactly what makes the award-winning musical — debuted at 8 p.m. Thursday at Monongalia Arts Center (MAC) — work.

“Music sometimes has a different way of connecting with people than just dialogue,” he said. “The emotion of music is very different than just reading. And can take what’s a reasonably difficult issue to even discuss and puts it in a delivery model that makes it more accessible to people.”

The modern score is composed of 38 songs and tells the story of a mother struggling with worsening bipolar disorder and the effects that her illness and its management have had on her family. The production also addresses grief, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry and the underbelly of suburban life.

“At times, it’s a very dark show. It’s incredibly funny at times and is very often heart-wrenching,” Dean said.

It’s also one that speaks to the director. So much so that within a day and half of deciding to put on the musical, he had a fully realized vision of how to make it happen. And in addition to directing, Dean is responsible for the set design, which includes three levels, is the show’s producer and is among the cast of six.

“If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be able to see yourself on that stage,” he said. “While everyone’s issues may not be so profound, the emotion behind it is relatable. … The problem is that most people don’t want to talk about these things, don’t want to deal with them.”

That’s why Dean believes that a show like “Next to Normal,” which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is one audiences should see.

“This is not so much a show about mental illness as it is about empathy and dealing with things correctly,” he said. “There’s not a lot of empathy in our society right now. Life is too short and this planet is too messed up not to have it. And if you walk out of this theater with a renewed sense of empathy, that’s the goal.”

Dean acknowledges that the show may very well stir all kinds of feelings up for those in attendance, which is why behavioral health outreach and support services will be available to residents and attendees, to be provided by professionals from WVU Medicine/Chestnut Ridge Center/WVU Department of Behavioral Health.

As MAC Executive Director Ro Brooks points out in release about the show, the center itself has a history of mental health outreach.

“Every August we host a full-scale community mental health outreach event, and we couldn’t be more pleased to supplement that impact by taking advantage of the theme of this acclaimed theatrical production,” she said. “We are so thankful to WVU for joining us in this effort.”

“We’re not pulling any punches with this production,” Dean said. “We’re presenting it exactly as written and for some people that may feel like a freight train hitting them. So it would feel irresponsible to have these resource available.

“We want to make sure nobody walks out of there feeling worse. They need to walk out better than they came in.”

  • “Next to Normal” is set for 8 p.m. today-Saturday and Nov. 8-10, and 2 p.m. Sunday at Monongalia Arts Center, 107 High St. Admission is $15. Tickets: MAC lobby desk, at 304-292-3325, and at monartscenter.com/shop. Outreach services will be available before the show starting at 7:30 p.m. for the evening performances, and 1:30 p.m. for the matinee, and also during the intermission of each performance, in MAC’s Benedum Gallery. Due to content and graphic language, this show is not suitable for younger audience members.
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