Penn State Centre Stage’s ‘Next to Normal’ revises perception of mental illness

Ariela Morgenstern and Gregory LaMontagne, portraying Diana Goodman and her son, Gabe, rehearse for the Penn State Centre Stage production of “Next to Normal.”
Ariela Morgenstern and Gregory LaMontagne, portraying Diana Goodman and her son, Gabe, rehearse for the Penn State Centre Stage production of “Next to Normal.”

Oftentimes, those with mental illness are labeled as being strange, psychotic and depressing. But a new musical sheds a light on bipolar disorder, depicting the illness with a positive message of family, love and strength of spirit. Penn State Centre Stage will present the regional premiere of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s powerful rock musical “Next to Normal” at Penn State’s Pavilion Theatre through June 14.

Directed by Cary Libkin and starring Ariela Morgenstern, Asa Somers, Raymond Sage, Tommy Hart, Christina Kidd and Gregory LaMontagne, “Next To Normal” depicts a mother struggling with worsening bipolar disorder and the effect her illness has on her loved ones. In “Next to Normal,” the illness is not depicted in an exaggerated way as it so often is in popular culture, but rather as a set of personal challenges that the mother must face. Diana, played by Morgenstern, is portrayed realistically as a human being, a real person with real problems.

Nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2009, “Next to Normal” won best original score, best orchestration, and best performance by a leading actress in a musical. In 2010, the show won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, becoming the eighth musical in history to receive the honor.

At the center of “Next to Normal” is Dan Goodman, the patriarch of the Goodman family. He’s an architect by trade, and a patient and smart man, but often too protective of his wife and children. Dan struggles to help his wife cope with and treat her severe bipolar disorder, which threatens to tear the family apart. Unfortunately, he makes some questionable decisions along the way.

Somers, who originated the role in the U.S. national tour cast from 2010-2011 opposite Tony winner Alice Ripley, will reprise the role of Dan. He has been with “Next to Normal” for many years, originating the role of Dr. Madden off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre. But Somers is thrilled to come back to a role he’s comfortable with but challenging at the same time.

“I am returning to a role that I’m very familiar with, which is, in some ways, a huge advantage,” he said. “But our director has his own ideas about how the piece should be interpreted, so I’m doing a lot of ‘unlearning’ and ‘re-learning’ of the role, and that’s a fun process.”

Director Libkin has been on the faculty at Penn State for 24 years and led in the creation of the musical theater degree program 20 years ago. Today he teaches directing and musical theater studio and heads the musical theater degree programs. Libkin holds a bachelor’s degree from Bradley University and an MFA from Carnegie-Mellon. He has directed plays and musicals in 11 of the past 12 summers for Penn State Centre Stage.

Given the subject matter of “Next to Normal,” one might think this production may be filled with depression and despair. But Libkin said he finds the work to be a celebration of the human spirit, the love of family and the need to stay positive in light of a serious illness.

“This complex, captivating musical proves just how powerful love and humor can be in the coping process,” he said.

With the depiction of an illness that affects families and not just individuals, “Next to Normal” is a story that people of all ages can relate to.

“I think what makes ‘Next to Normal’ such an instant classic is that it appeals to nearly every age group, from teenagers to grandparents, and everyone in between,” Somers said. “The three young characters in our show deal with very contemporary problems that high school and college kids will surely relate to, while parents in our audience will see reflections of their own families in the Goodmans.”

“Certainly this is a show about mental illness — very severe bipolar disorder with schizophrenic tendencies, to be exact,” Somers said. “There is a lot of well-researched science and medicine in this show. But really, I think this show is about family more than anything else — and how a very contemporary family deals with complex and very difficult, if not impossible, to solve problems. The show is funny, it’s moving, it’s entertaining, and very thought-provoking. I can’t recommend it enough.”