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Powerful musical ‘Next To Normal’ takes the stage at Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre

The topic of mental illness is one that touches many lives — one in four Americans struggle with mental illness in any given year.

The Jewish Community Center Cultural Arts Department raises the issue of dealing with mental illness in its production of the musical “Next To Normal” at the White Theatre. Performances are Feb. 9, 14, 16, 21, and 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 10, 17 and 24 at 2 p.m. Each performance will be followed by a talk-back session with a mental health professional to highlight and provide context for the issues raised by the script.

This production features the talents of local actors under the direction of Mark Swezey with musical direction by Jeff Martin. The cast includes local success story Patrick Lewallen, a graduate of Shawnee Mission South and the University of Kansas. Lewallen was cast as Gabe through the courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States. Lewallen performed in the national tour of “Rock of Ages.” He also appeared in the movie version of the hit rock musical with Tom Cruise. Lewallen, a former student of director Mark Swezey, last appeared at the White Theatre in the comedy “Beau Jest.”

“Next To Normal” won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It is the story of a suburban household that is dealing with the mother’s bi-polar disorder and its unpredictability. The audience shares the experience of a family’s struggles as they deal with mental illness and how they learn to care for each other. The exhilarating musical score helps tell this powerful story in a meaningful way sure to move the audience to a more keen understanding of the challenges of dealing with mental illness.

The Jewish Community Mental Health Coalition is partnering with the JCC on “Next to Normal” to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of mental illness. Following each performance, a mental health professional will provide insight into the issues raised, and context for the complexities of mental illness. (For more information on these sessions, visit www.jcckc.org/normal.) Participants for the Talk-Back sessions will come from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Depression Bipolar Support Alliance, the Jewish Community Mental Health Coalition and Bike for the Brain.

While plays, movies and TV frequently emphasize the more exaggerated signs and symptoms of mental illness, the National Institute of Mental Health states “most people with mental illnesses who are diagnosed and treated will respond well and live productive lives.”

Cast member Lewallen said he’s excited to be working in this JCC-White Theatre production of “Next To Normal.”

“I confess, in the beginning, I knew nothing about the show,” Lewallen said. “Through the rehearsal process, I have become enchanted with the difficult, creative score and the overpowering story. It’s going to be a solid production.”

“Next To Normal” is rated PG-13 for adult language and situations. Tickets for this production are $16 for members, $22 for (general public), and $11 for students (college and under). Tickets may be purchased by contacting the box office, open from 3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday at 913- 327-8054; or you may purchase tickets online by visiting the JCC web site at www.jcckc.org/boxoffice.