In 2008, Arena Stage audiences got to see “Next to Normal” before it opened on Broadway, where it was nominated for 11 Tonys and remains one of only 10 musicals to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Now, “Next to Normal” is currently being staged at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, where it has wowed audiences so much that it just got extended until March 3.
“It happened off-Broadway, then they brought it to Arena to make some edits and it became so good that they brought it from Arena to Broadway,” director Alan Paul told WTOP. “I think [D.C.], behind New York, is the greatest theater town in the United States. … The great thing about this cast of six is that five of the actors live in Washington, so in my opinion, it’s a big celebration of local talent that lives, breathes and works in D.C.”
The modern story follows a suburban family grappling with mental health, drugs, grief and suicide.
“‘Next to Normal’ is about a kind of archetypal American family,” Paul said. “The matriarch, Diana, is suffering from bipolar disorder. She has a husband and she has a teenage daughter and a son. … The musical deals with intense themes, but they’re themes that everyone has gone through in life. … It’s a hugely joyful show that is really uplifting — and if tears are shed at all, they’re communal tears of a shared experience.”
Local theatergoers will absolutely recognize the cast members, who have never been better, Paul says.
“Tracy Lynn Olivera is playing Diana, she’s been in town for 25 years and I have to say she is giving the most remarkable performance I have ever seen her give,” Paul said. “She’s hilarious and she sings the H-E-L-L out of this score. It’s thrilling, and so is Kevin McAllister, who plays her husband Dan, who has equally been everywhere in D.C. I’ve never seen him tackle a role as dramatic as this and he sings like an angel.”
The songbook by Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music) includes a string of renowned musical theater numbers, including “I Miss the Mountains,” “You Don’t Know” and “I’m Alive.”
“It is a rock musical and the music in that theater sounds amazing [with] a six-person band,” Paul said. “My personal opinion is that it’s one of the greatest scores of the last 25 years because there’s something for everyone in it. Sometimes it feels like a rock musical, there’s some country in there, there’s a beautiful, ethereal waltz, there’s rage, there’s passion. I think the music is really gorgeous and uplifting in many places.”
Not only does the music soar across Bethesda, the visual production is daringly outside the box.
“We’re doing it with a lot of live video,” Paul said. “There are seven cameras that capture the action all around the stage, above the stage, from the audience, from different perspectives, there’s even a camera backstage, so you’re getting this show, which is about the internal journey of this woman, Diana, and you’re seeing a visual representation of the metaphor of that journey through all of these cameras and live video.”
For Paul, it’s his first time back at Round House since “Spring Awakening” before the pandemic.
“A year and a half ago I got a job running the Barrington Stage Company, which is a big summer theater in the Berkshires [of Massachusetts], so I left Washington a little over a year ago and my tenure at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. This is my first show back in D.C. as a nonresident. It’s been so incredible to be back in this town that I love with artists that I have a long relationship with. I’m so proud of that and proud to be back.”