How do you make a story about a mother with bipolar disorder having a nervous breakdown palatable to musical theatre audiences? First, you make the characters poignantly identifiable – Dan (Kevin S. McAllister), a loving husband and father devoted to keeping his family intact; Natalie (Sophia Early), their angsty teenage daughter living in the shadow of her dead baby brother Gabe and fighting her own demons; Henry (Ben Clark), her boyfriend committed to seeing her through her pain; and Gabe (Lucas Hinds Babcock), the ghost of the dead child who haunts Diana in her darkest moments.
With its deeply emotional story, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal might seem unlikely to resonate with theatregoers, but it truly does. Thanks in large part to the unforgettably lush score by composer Tom Kitt with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, the show is impossible to resist.
Ignoring the needs of her family, Diana (Tracy Lynn Olivera) is prescribed more and more pills to dull the memory of the loss of her child and heal her break from reality. Her struggle to keep it all together for the sake of her family is thwarted by Gabe’s constant demands to be remembered. In the song “I’m Alive,” he tells his mother he must never be forgotten.
As Diana descends into a manic state in a fog of despair from a plethora of pills, she begins to question the meds, the therapy, and even her psychiatrist, Doctor Madden (Calvin McCullough), whom she pictures as a rock star – one of the funnier bits.
“What happens if the break was not in my mind or my blood, but in my soul,” she asks Dan after the constant “hauntings” by Gabe. Dan, struggling to hold the family and their tenuous marriage together, wonders aloud, “Why would you want to remember the things that hurt you?” In her manic state, these questions are impossible to contemplate, and even more difficult to explain.
Thirty-six numbers turbo-charge this sing-through with joy, pathos, passion, and anguish. The cast is superb – their voices exquisitely blended and nuanced. Olivera is a well-known, well-respected commodity in area theaters. Here, her subtly powerful performance is balanced beautifully – shining but not outshining this remarkable ensemble.
Audiences will be moved by McCallister’s rich baritone and commanding presence as the father who must keep the family from falling apart at the seams. A surprise casting is the clearly up-and-coming young actor Lucas Babcock, as Gabe’s ghost. His voice and performance will tear your heart out. It stopped me in my tracks. This is a big role – physically and emotionally demanding – and I’m excited to see what’s next for this straight-out-of-college young actor’s future.
Director Alan Paul (Whatever he directs, for god’s sake, just go!) has assembled the best cast with top-drawer performances, plus Chris Youstra’s staging that brings it all seamlessly together. This is the one to see now!
Choreographer, Eamon Foley; Music Director, Christopher Youstra; Scenic Designer, Wilson Chin; Costume Designer, Helen Huang; Lighting Designer, Sherrice Mojgani; Sound Designer, Ken Travis; Dramaturg, Naysan Mojgani.
Through March 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814. For tickets and information contact the box office at 240 644-1100 or visit RoundHouseTheatre.org