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'Next to Normal' not your typical musical

Next Stage Repertory Company kicks off Craterian Performances’ fall season with the Tony and Pulitzer prize-winning rock musical “Next to Normal.”

Southern Oregon audiences may not be familiar with the 2009 Broadway hit, but the story of a family coping with crisis and overcoming challenges is a familiar one, says Director Parthy McCandless. And the themes of love and hope universal, she adds.

With book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, “Next to Normal” chronicles a family caught in the storm of the mother’s worsening bipolar disorder. From the outside, they appear to be a thriving all-American family. Dad is an architect; mom’s a homemaker; and their children are bright, wise-cracking teens. And, yet, their lives are anything but normal. Mom’s been battling manic depression for 16 years — a battle that is beginning to crack the family’s façade.

The play takes an unflinching look at the dark side of suburban life while also shining a light on grief, suicide, drug abuse and modern psychiatry practices.

Critics have called "Next to Normal" the best musical of the 21st century, with provocative lyrics and an electrifying score that gracefully handles the dark, complex subject matter.

“It is not your typical musical,” McCandless says. “There are no tap-dancing numbers.”

The play is brutally honest in its treatment of mental illness and the ripple effect on a family, but McCandless is quick to point out that the musical is not a documentary on bipolar disorder or a debate about the pros and cons of any particular pill to manage the illness.

"It’s very real, very modern, very powerful and emotional,” McCandless says. “It’s a very moving story that at the heart of it is about a family relating and coping with care and love.

"Our approach focuses on the profound love the characters have for one another. Their attempt at coping may be imperfect, but what matters is love … a love that says ‘we can make it through any challenge together.’ I love that message of hope.”

As in other popular, contemporary musicals — think “Rent” and “Evan Hansen” — much of the dialogue is sung, and with more than 30 songs, "Next to Normal" is a huge production.

"The six-member cast literally has to sing its heart out,” McCandless says. "They are complicated songs with complex vocal arrangements, and not at all lyrical.”

Rehearsals have proven that the cast is more than up to the task.

When the casting call went out earlier this year, audition tapes from as far away as San Francisco and New York arrived, but it was local actors and vocalists who won the roles.

"We were amazed by the caliber of talent (in the Rogue Valley) and the level of singing ability,” McCandless says. “It’s been a privilege to watch and listen.”

The fun, diverse cast that McCandless says brings disparate life experiences to the piece features Jennifer de Puglia as Diana, the mother; Brian Day as Dan, the father; and Andrea Hochkeppel and Braden Day as their wisecracking teens Natalie and Gabe. Alex Boyles is Dr. Madden, Diana’s psychiatrist, and Eric Boyles is Henry, a boy with an eye for Natalie.

Cailey McCandless, the director’s niece, is the associate director and choreographer.

McCandless, who directed “White Christmas” for Next Stage three years ago, believes audiences will relate to the show that at its heart is about a family struggling, but ultimately overcoming life’s challenges with love. It is a theme that is universal, she adds.

Due to the adult language and themes, “Next to Normal” may be inappropriate for ages 13 and younger.

Jennifer Davis, left, Brian Day and Alex Boyles rehearse for 'Next To Normal,' opening Friday, Sept. 22, at the Craterian Theater in Medford. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]