A Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical that deals with mental illness and grief will debut in Missoula this week.
“Next to Normal”, an independent production, is presented at the Westside Theater for the next two weeks.
Lead actress and co-producer Petrea Torma led the effort to bring the show to town after seeing it years ago. She plays a mother who has lived with bipolar disorder for years while raising her children with her husband in what seems like an idyllic suburban life.
“Underneath you see the struggles each of these characters face,” she said.
Andy Meyers, who plays the husband, said Torma is “such an advocate for mental health in her life that she really brings an understanding and a thoughtfulness to it, and that’s what the role demands.”
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Torma, a fourth-grade teacher at Paxson Elementary School, starred as the witch in the Missoula Community Theater production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” last March.
She thought the pandemic made “Next to Normal” even more appropriate, as society tends to discourage openness about mental health. She said people feel compelled to “live without help because they are afraid that being sad, grieving or suffering from mental illness will weaken you in any way”.
The full run is Thursday-Saturday, September 22-24 and September 29-October 29. 1 to 7 p.m. For tickets, go to thewestsidetheater.com. Seating will accommodate approximately 120 people, mostly proscenium style.
The show has a book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, which won them three Tony Awards with a Pultizer in 2010. It is rare for a musical to win this award as it competes with traditional dramas.
While they hope the production can open a dialogue about mental health through the arts, the message is delivered in an unusual form. Meyers said “it’s so brilliant it’s a rock score because it deals with all these heavy issues but it doesn’t wallow or sound like a eulogy.”
The energy is closer to “the things you’d like to scream in the shower,” he said. Although the series has serious themes which it treats with care, there is also humor.
It has adult language and deals with real challenges, including those faced by teenage characters, so it roughly translates to a PG-13 rating.
Meyers said they’ve all researched and worked to make depictions of mental illness realistic — in some cases, he said, that means it’s not easily visible, which doesn’t isn’t always the case when actors play such roles in movies.
Torma said her character, Diana, was complex and the storyline delved into the complications of diagnosis. In the script, she says at one point that “bipolar doesn’t exactly cover it.” The plot includes extenuating circumstances that lead to a crisis.
While it is an independent production, the show features many familiar faces and a newly revamped venue.
The Westside Theater is the renowned name of the Shakespeare Street studio in the same building as Freestone Climbing. Earlier this year it became the headquarters of the Bare Bait Dance company and aims to offer a wide variety of events in a space that can be reconfigured as needed. (Because it was built for high-flying circus acts, it has a very high ceiling.)
Much of the cast and crew are regulars at Missoula productions.
The director’s chair is occupied by Joseph Martinez, the artistic director of MCT Inc.
The local cast ranges from twenties to professors. David Cody, who teaches at the University of Montana in musical theatre, voice and opera; Stephen Jay Clement is a recent UM graduate who has performed with Montana Repertory Theatre; Renee Ross is an independent actress and musician. Nick Monsos is a UM student.
Meyers, who plays the husband, is the artistic director of the Fort Peck Summer Theater. He has directed and performed in shows here, including Missoula Community Theater productions. He is co-producing with Torma and the Westside Theatre.
The musical raucous mentioned by Meyers will be delivered with the help of an eight-piece rock band including a cellist and a violinist, led by musical director Scott Koljonen.
Torma said they wanted to help make sure people know resources are available for themselves and others. After each show, viewers can stay to chat with experts on topics ranging from maternal mental health to suicide prevention and addiction.
They include representatives from the All Nations Indian Health Center, the Missoula Therapy mental health clinic and the Center, a downtown LGBTQ community center. Rosie Ayers of the Project Tomorrow suicide prevention effort will lead the discussions.
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