Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Round House Theatre

Immersive and searing theatre that packs an emotional wallop.

By: Feb. 01, 2024
Review: NEXT TO NORMAL at Round House Theatre

The painful slow journey for understanding as to what normalcy or perceived sanity is --when a family member is suffering from bipolar illness--- is explored with heartbreaking poignancy, almost brutal honesty and with deadpan caustic humor in the musical Next to Normal. Now playing at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, this almost totally sung-through musical caught me up in its oddly satisfying emotional pulse. I fell into its compelling pull as the trauma of a family experiencing the highs and lows of bipolar illness unfolded.

The levels of this incisive musical are vast ---from a study on bipolar illness, the related effects on the family, mental depression and mania, parenting, guilt, addiction, suicide, delusions, ECT, therapy, and remorse. Luckily, these elements congeal together thanks to the scrupulous eye of director Alan Paul. Director Paul has made the interesting theatrical choice to accentuate not just the lead characterization of Diana (a sublimely subtle and meticulous performance by Tracy Lynn Olivera) but to give equal weight to the effects of her illness on her family.

In the production I saw at Arena Stage in 2008, though the action of the play gave theatrical respect to all the characters, the emphasis on Diana (as played by Alice Ripley) made this amazing vehicle more of a piece where the audience directed most of its sympathy for Diana. In this version (which is a co-production of Barrington Stage Company) there is a pronounced approach to portray all the other characters in the play as equally suffering and striving to heal.

Stephen Sondheim stated “Content dictates form” and, indeed, the raw, messy content inherent in therapies that do not always work, the wrong pills being prescribed and mixed messages of what is normal and what is not(leading to the title of the play’s title that, perhaps being “next to normal” is all that one can expect and be grateful for) is conveyed here in a theatrically visceral and highly interactive style.

Large projection designs by Nicholas Hussong effectively intensify other dimensions of the characters’ psychological complexity (akin to the closeups in the Ingmar Bergman film Persona). The fourth wall is completely dropped as the actors often cross downstage and upstage, actors descend on the stage from the aisles of the theatre ---- and even deliver lines atop an elevated staircase. The creative scenic design by Wilson Chin and the intense, evocative lighting by Sherrice Mojgani adds to the psychological rawness and opening up of this musical.

The intelligent and trenchant book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and rock-oriented music by Tom Kitt (with some lush violin and light country underpinnings) merited a Pulitzer Prize and propels the narrative forward with crackling surging power. Music director Christopher Youstra must be commended for the splendid music interpretation. A very professional band of six musicians is visible behind a “see-through” encased area upstage to add to the interactive feel of the musical.

Especially noteworthy is the creative and compelling choreography by Eamon Foley which has the characters almost constantly moving.

I have already mentioned the superb performance of Tracy Lynn Olivera as Diana. Aside from her subtle acting prowess, Ms. Olivera sings with a sense of vocal confidence and control that helped to hold this ensemble’s musical ambiance together. Ms. Olivera’s glorious rendition of “I Miss the Mountains”, the assertive “You Don’t Know” and the song of self-realization “The Break” were standouts.

Kevin McAllister’s performance as the weary and eager to placate character of Dan was fascinating in that his character was extremely vulnerable and broken in his eagerness to help his wife. Mr. McAllister’s singing of “He’s Not Here” was superb.

Sophia Early as the rebellious, frank and seemingly ignored daughter was captivating and grew in dramatic power as the evening progressed. Ms. Early’s rendition of “Everything Else” and the rock- fueled “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” was super-charged with authentic charisma.

Lucas Hinds Babcock’s portrayal of the son Gabe was electrifyingly kinetic and enthusiastic especially in the commanding song “I’m Alive”.

Ben Clark’s beautiful piercing and sensitive vocal tones captivated in his lively duets and interactions with Ms. Early. Mr. Clark provided a captivatingly funny, unassuming, and natural performance.

Calvin McCullough’s portrayal of Dr. Madden was professional and dryly interpreted.

The influence of the musical Rent and a foreshadowing of such serious material as Jagged Little Pill and the opera Dead Man Walking can be seen in this socially conscious musical that addresses the undeserved stigma all too often aligned with mental health conditions.

Round House Theatre’s production of Next to Normal is immersive and searing theatre that packs an emotional wallop.

Running Time: Two Hours and twenty minutes with one intermission.

Next To Normal runs through February 25, 2024, at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre located at 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814.

Photo credit: The company of Round House Theatre's production of Next to Normal. Photo by Margot Schulman.