‘Next to Normal’ Completes Season Focused on Mental Health

The Festival Playhouse will present the capstone to its 59th season with four performances of Next to Normal from Thursday, May 18–Sunday, May 21, at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse, 129 Thompson St.

The rock musical centers on Diana, a suburban woman struggling with worsening bipolar disorder and its effects on her family. The show has themes of grief, depression, suicide, drug abuse and psychiatric ethics, making it ideal for concluding a season themed Mental Health Matters. After an off-Broadway debut in 2008, Next to Normal opened on Broadway in 2009, earning 11 Tony nominations and three awards along with the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Visiting Assistant Professor Anthony J. Hamilton will serve as the musical’s director. Hamilton made his New York directorial debut in a production titled Grandma’s Quilt with the Negro Ensemble Company in 2020. He has directing and choreography credits from the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre including Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 2011, Once on This Island in 2019, The 1940s Radio Hour in 2021, The Piano Lesson and Newsies in 2022, and A Raisin in the Sun in 2023.

“It isn’t a typical rock opera or musical, but I think those who come will get something out of it, which is that ‘mental health matters’ component,” Hamilton said. “I think young people especially are championing the idea that it matters, and because we’re presenting it at a college, it will be interesting to see how students react to this piece.”

Dramaturg Isaiah Calderon ’26 says the play doesn’t shy away from some horrible experiences while it tackles issues surrounding both mental health and the modern-day medical industry.

“This broad scope of focus might detract from the narrative efficiency of another play, but Next to Normal handles its eclectic storytelling in a way that leaves everything thoroughly explored,” Calderon said. “All the pieces are brought together by the acknowledgement of human imperfection and the fact that even though it may be tempting, the perfection we strive for is neither attainable nor ideal. Its presentation intends to affect its viewer in a way that feels a bit overwhelming, but upon examination, is refreshingly direct. Its intensity and refusal to compromise drive home its points perfectly.”

Sophia Merchant ’25 will play Diana, the matriarch of her nuclear family, in the musical’s lead.

“What’s great about working on a show at a place like K instead of a place like Western, where everyone is a theatre major, is that we have psychology majors and engineers, our state manager is pre-med, and we have all of these different backgrounds coming together to put on this show,” Hamilton said.

The play will be staged at 7:30 p.m. May 18–20 and at 2 p.m. May 21. Tickets are available online or by calling the Festival Playhouse at 269.337.7333.

Sophia Merchant sings during Founders Day at Stetson Chapel
Sophia Merchant ’25 will play Diana, a character who deals with mental health issues including worsening bipolar disorder, in the upcoming production of “Next to Normal.”
Image advertising play about mental health says, "Next to Normal" by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt
The Festival Playhouse will stage “Next to Normal” at 7:30 p.m. May 18–20 and at 2 p.m. May 21.