NEW BRUNSWICK — An unprecedented epidemic needs an unprecedented response, according to New Jersey's chief law enforcement officer.

Even entertainers can serve as one of the creative ways to take on an addiction crisis that continues to tighten its grip on the Garden State.

Following a keynote address by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, which featured the latest overdose statistics tallied by the state, conference attendees were treated to the debut performance of a musical crafted in response to the devastating impact of opioid misuse, heroin and fentanyl on communities throughout New Jersey.

Anytown follows Hope Baker, a skies-the-limit scholar athlete in New Jersey whose life is turned upside down when she accepts a painkiller to deal with a soccer injury. Her dreams of success gradually escalate into an addiction-fueled nightmare that can't even be stopped by earning early acceptance into Princeton University.

Anytown musical
(L to R) Eileen Doan, Emma Wagner, and Joe Piserchio in "Anytown" at George Street Playhouse, Spotlight Conference on Opioid Abuse and Its Impact on Teens and Families, September 25, 2018. (Photo: Jerry Dalia)

Throughout her journey — one that includes lying to a doctor in order to obtain more pills, and stealing medication from a friend's home — Baker is visited by "The Monster," a nagging demon of the subconscious that becomes more powerful as the addiction grows.

"This musical is very personal for me," said actor Joe Piserchio, whose older brother is now four years clean from an addiction to painkillers. "Being in a show as this one, about the opioid crisis, I do feel like I do make a difference, especially going into schools and speaking to students."

The musical is a production of George Street Playhouse's Educational Touring Theatre, courtesy of support from The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and RWJBarnabas Health. Each year, the troupe performs over 150 shows at schools throughout the state, taking on sensitive topics such as addiction, bullying and diabetes.

The original music for Anytown was created from interviews with drug prevention experts, individuals recovering from opioid abuse and those who interact regularly with current users.

Among those who offered the show creators a glimpse at the dark side was Toms River resident Angela Cicchino, who now serves as a recovery specialist for RWJBarnabas Health.

Like the main character on stage, Cicchino grew up with one parent and was always an overachiever in school — until she found opiates.

"It doesn't matter where it leads you, how you feel, who you hurt, as long as you can just be numb," said Cicchino, who last used drugs seven years ago. "I think they've done a great job capturing that throughout the play."

The musical targets middle and high school students in New Jersey. The production is expected to reach a total audience of 50,000 from October 2018 through April 6, 2019.

"We produce musicals like Anytown because we believe that experiencing live theater can both entertain and educate, and that theater can show us the world from a new perspective, and also can be a catalyst for conversation about difficult topics," said Kelly Ryman, managing director of George Street Playhouse, located on the Cook Campus of Rutgers University.

Overdoses on the rise

NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal
NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal gives the Keynote at the Spotlight Conference on Opiod Abuse and It's Impact On Teens and Families presented by the George Street Playhouse at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Office of the Attorney General / Tim Larsen)

According to preliminary figures released Tuesday, New Jersey saw 2,750 drug overdose fatalities in 2017. That's an increase of 24 percent from 2016.

And real-time data on the state's website suggest the fatal overdose tally will at least top 2,900 in 2018. Through Sept. 17, the state has seen 2,080 fatalities, or eight deaths per day.

"If I had to pick one word to describe what we're contending with, it would be unprecedented," Attorney General Grewal said. "I think this epidemic is unprecedented in its scope and in its reach."

With 362, Essex County experienced the highest number of drug overdose deaths in 2017, followed by Camden County with 308.

According to reports from law enforcement and EMTs, Camden County in 2017 had the highest usage rate of Narcan, the opioid antidote drug. Hunterdon County had the lowest rate. Statewide, one Narcan administration was reported for every 627 residents.

Noting a primary pathway to addiction is the prescribed use of opioids by a physician, Grewal said the state has seen a steady decrease in the amount of prescription opioid drugs dispensed in the state.

For the first time in years, the number of opioid prescriptions fell below 5 million in 2017, compared to a peak of 5.64 million in 2015.

"The hope is if the prescriptions level off, the overdoses and the addiction will level off as well," Grewal said.

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