Sunday, February 1, 2015

Friday, Feb. 08, 2013

Rock musical brings mental health issues into focus

Special to The Star


Showtime “Next to Normal” opens tonight and continues on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 24 in the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 5801 West 115th St., Overland Park. Tickets are $16 for members, $22 for general public and $11for students. For more information call 913-327-8054 or go to

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People who watch the Jewish Community Center’s rock musical about one family’s mental illness issues that opens tonight might leave with plenty to talk about.

That’s why mental health professionals will be at each performance of “Next to Normal.”

Organizers hope people who have questions or want to discuss their reactions to the musical will stay for discussions with experts who can provide insight into issues raised in the performance. Audience members can talk to representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, the Jewish Community Mental Health Coalition and Bike for the Brain.

“Next to Normal” follows a mother’s struggle with a worsening bipolar disorder that affects her family. It deals with problems such as suicide, drug abuse and grief. The Broadway production won a Tony Award for best original score and the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

“This is a musical but not a light-hearted, feel-good musical,” said Krista Blackwood, director of cultural arts at the Jewish Community Center. “It’s a drama that has an outstanding musical score.”

Blackwood said the production is a collaboration of the Cultural Arts Department and the Jewish Family Services Mental Health Coalition that’s meant to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of mental illness. About one in four Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Katie Meador, a graduate of Olathe South high school, has the lead role of Diana Goodman, who has suffered from bipolar disorder coupled with hallucinations and memory loss for 16 years.

“This show is the most physically and emotionally demanding role I’ve ever experienced,” said Meador, 24. “Diana is so up and down, with highs and lows all over the place. I hadn’t expected to do a part like this until I was 15 years older.

“It’s so moving, happy and sad, uplifting and depressing,” she said. “It’s beautiful, so complex and the music is incredible.”

Patrick Lewallen, a graduate of Shawnee Mission South and the University of Kansas who divides time between Overland Park and New York City, plays Gabe, Diana’s son.

“It’s heavy, absolutely the most difficult role I’ve done,” said Lewallen, who performed on the national tour and film version of “Rock of Ages.” “It’s mentally exhausting. You have to give 100 percent emotionally every minute. I’m worn out after every rehearsal. You come away feeling there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, though.”

Joel Morrison of Lee’s Summit plays Dan Goodman, Diana’s husband. He’s wanted a role in the musical since it first came out.“It shows humans will seek love even after being emotionally devastated by it. This is either totally crazy or amazingly beautiful, depending on how you choose to see it,” Morrison added.

Beth Benedict, a graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas who recently moved back to Lenexa from Los Angeles, plays Natalie, the Goodman’s daughter.

“It has a wonderful message about mental health and how it affects people,” Benedict said. “There are many terrible side effects of medication the show tells about, but no matter how dark life gets there is always light.”

The production also includes Steven James of Shawnee as Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry, and James Levy of Overland Park as a doctor who tries to help Diana.

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