Wielding such technology, it must be noted, is not an onstage novelty. On Broadway, productions of “Network,” “Oklahoma!” and “Here Lies Love” in recent years have used cameras to simulcast actors’ performances to sizable screens, allowing even cheap-seats patrons to inspect a performer’s every pore. The Kennedy Center’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” revival deployed the same technique when it officially opened Sunday night, 24 hours before Round House christened “Next to Normal” a few miles up Wisconsin Avenue.
But while “Tick, Tick … Boom!” used projections to scale up a modest show for a sprawling space, director Alan Paul is more interested in unabashed immersion at Round House’s intimate Bethesda venue, splashing the stage with a blend of prerecorded and live-streamed images of his impeccable six-person cast. If bungled, the flourish could undercut Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s alt-rock masterpiece, which claimed the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Instead, it sharpens this affecting portrait of a bipolar matriarch drowning in grief and the ripple effects of her struggle.
As Olivera’s Diana descends into delusion, the projections visualize her overwhelmed head space like a David Lynchian fever dream. At certain points, the pictures capture actors from inventive angles or cleverly merge images of characters on parallel journeys. At others, they coat a ghostly figure in a spectral hue. Although Wilson Chin’s living room set mostly serves as a canvas for those projections, Paul uses its scaffolded stairwell, a circular second-story doorway and the long window peering backstage to dynamically arrange the show’s myriad overlapping conversations.
A co-production with Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage Company, where Paul was appointed artistic director in 2022 after spending a decade-plus in Washington, “Next to Normal” also serves as a sterling showcase for D.C.-area talent. Kevin S. McAllister imbues Diana’s concerned husband, Dan, with rich vocals and heart-wrenching pathos. Sophia Early endearingly inhabits their overachieving teenage daughter, while Ben Clark charms as her roguish boyfriend. And Lucas Hinds Babcock (the only out-of-town actor) commands the stage as Diana and Dan’s son — especially when delivering an empowered rendition of the haunting toe-tapper “I’m Alive.”
As for Olivera, the gifted comic actor plays Diana’s unmoored mentality with understated restraint. By the time we get to her aching Act 1 solo “I Miss the Mountains,” Olivera has already won the audience’s unconditional compassion. The show’s musical peak arrives shortly after, when McAllister’s polished voice harmonizes handsomely with Babcock’s more rock-rooted vocals on “I Am the One,” a yearning anthem of crumbling connection.
Eamon Foley’s choreography is smartly unfussy, allowing the music’s electric rhythms to pulsate through the performers. Christopher Youstra oversees a sharp six-member band, though one does occasionally wish for a bigger sound to accommodate the Tony-winning score, featuring music by Kitt and lyrics by Yorkey (who also penned the musical’s book). In addition to accentuating Hussong’s projections, lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani helps memorably introduce Calvin McCullough’s Dr. Madden — a physician boasting a rock-star reputation and an affinity for electroshock therapy — with striking neon flashes.
In illuminating Diana’s journey, “Next to Normal” sheds light on the importance of not suppressing or denying grief but learning to accept it and forge ahead. It speaks to the endurance of Kitt and Yorkey’s work, and the precision of Paul’s staging, that such a heavy message still rings true amid this production’s bells and whistles. Addressing why people reflect on their trauma, Early and Clark’s youthful characters sing a response that may as well be printed on the receipt for every “Next to Normal” ticket sold: “It’s the price we pay to feel.”
Next to Normal, music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Alan Paul. Choreography, Eamon Foley; music direction, Christopher Youstra; sets, Wilson Chin; costumes, Helen Huang; lighting, Sherrice Mojgani; sound, Ken Travis; projections, Nicholas Hussong. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Feb. 25 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. roundhousetheatre.org.