Getting to ‘Normal’ Local thespians navigate mental illness themes in Pulitzer-winning musical

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Posted: Friday, February 7, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 2:10 pm, Thu Jun 5, 2014.

Ahh, musical theater.

Light on message, high on toe-tapping good times, never a worry, never a care. Just pure, unadulterated saccharine entertainment that has become a true American artform.

There are, of course, notable exceptions. “Sweeney Todd” took on some heady, murderous issues related to judicial corruption and baked them into a succulent pie. “Rent” tackled the growing HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

This weekend onstage at the Howard Drew Theatre in the Omaha Community Playhouse, another powerful play goes on as local actors will tangle with mental illness and its effects on a family in the 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical “Next to Normal.”

The show features 1993 Ralston High School alum Angela Jenson-Frey in the lead role of Diana Goodman, a suburban housewife whose bipolar disorder has been medicated into submission, along with her ability to feel anything.

The members of the Goodman family, including 2007 Papillion-La Vista South High School graduate Sam Swerczek as son Gabe, react in different ways to the recurrence of her illness when Diana decides to dump the drugs keeping her from expressing true emotion, but also on an even keel.

“This is a challenging show,” Jenson-Frey said. “I think people come to a musical and think it’s going to be light and fluffy, something with just pure entertainment value. And it’s not that this one doesn’t have its moments of humor and upbeat music, but bring your tissues. It’s a very thought-provoking show. People will walk away taking something with them.”

With rock ’n’ roll as the prime musical vehicle for the production, Swerczek — who considers himself a musician first and foremost and will release his debut album as a singer-songwriter in May — said the subject matter is aptly placed in context.

Having never seen “Next to Normal,” Swerczek did come across its soundtrack and said he was gripped by the tunes and the message they conveyed.

“I fell in love with the soundtrack,” he said. “It’s a great, great story told through the music, and I think rock is the appropriate way to tell that story. The music and lyrics combine in such a powerful way, and, in some of those more manic swings, you need a little rock edge to it.”

And it’s not all rock ’n’ roll, Swerczek said. The music takes on a sort of bipolar tonal quality of its own to match the sentiment onstage.

“It goes from the hard-driving to the soft, slow piano,” he said. “People who aren’t necessarily fans of rock will find music they can still love.”

“Next to Normal” is the first musical to garner a Pulitzer Prize for drama since “Rent” won the award in 1996.

Both Jenson-Frey and Swerczek said the raw emotion of the play, combined with a castful of demanding roles, has made for an arduous rehearsal process. But the play’s emotion will leave audiences with a firmer grasp on how mental illness affects families.

“It’s a really deep show,” Swerczek said. “It’s got a lot to say about being bipolar in America. There’s a focus here on something real and people are going to be aware that American families are dealing with it. It’ll hit a chord with those who see it. It’s one of the most challenging shows ever written.”

Jenson-Frey said playing Diana also put her talents into a new vocal register: trying to sing the part of a woman being tortured by her memories, her depression and, ultimately, the treatments for her illness, which include electroconvulsive therapy.

“Vocally, just to know how to approach the songs at different points was tough,” she said. “I’m used to, in a musical, you sing it pretty, you sing it the best you can. This role, you have to bring a whole range of emotion into it. Trying to find that whole range is difficult.”

Even for people and families not coping with mental illness, Jenson-Frey said there’s something in the play with which everyone can identify.

“We all have our own little dysfunctions, our human frailties,” she said. “Every family is next to normal in some way. Because who’s to say what normal is? You just never know what’s going on behind closed doors.”

Even with the heavy subject matter, though, there’s still something to smile about in “Next to Normal,” still plenty of entertainment and enough rocking riffs to get the toes tapping and sweet ballads to learn by heart.

“Don’t be scared away by the dark side of this show,” Jenson-Frey said. “There’s a lot of humor in it. There’s a lot more to it.”

Swerczek said the heavier themes are there for a reason and the show bears them out, but there are also other storylines to follow and an overarching message of hope.

“It’s not dark and depressing for the purpose of being dark and depressing,” he said. “It’s art, it’s beautiful and it tells a wonderful story.”

“Next to Normal” opens Friday with a 7:30 p.m. showing and runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 16. The show features adult situations and strong language and is therefore suggested for mature audiences only.

Tickets are on sale now and may be purchased at ticketomaha.com or by calling 402-345-0606. Single tickets are $40 for adults and $24 for students.

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