An Unforgettable Production of Next to Normal at Round House Theatre

An Unforgettable Production of Next to Normal at Round House Theatre

Next to Normal
Round House Theatre
Jordan Wright
February 6, 2024
Special to The Zebra

The cast of Next to Normal at Round House Theatre (Photo by Margot Schulman)

How do you make a story about a bi-polar mother 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. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal with its deeply emotional story might seem highly 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.

Lucas Hinds Babcock (Gabe) and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Diana) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

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 with 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 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.

Kevin S. McAllister (Dan), Sophia Early (Natalie), and Tracy Lynn Olivera (Diana) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Thirty-six numbers turbo-charge this sing-through with joy, pathos, passion and anguish too. The cast is superb – their voices exquisitely blended and nuanced. Olivera is a well-known, well-respected commodity in area theaters and 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.

Ben Clark (Henry) and Sophia Early (Natalie) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

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.

Highly recommended!

Through March 3rd 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

Nollywood Dreams

Nollywood Dreams

Round House Theatre
Jordan Wright
June 15, 2022
Special to The Zebra

Yao Dogbe (Gbenga Ezie), Ernaisja Curry (Ayamma Okafor), Renea Brown (Dede Okafor), and Joel Ashur (Wale Owusu) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Fact: Fashioned after India’s Bollywood film industry, Nollywood is the second most productive film industry in the world with over 1,000 movies produced a year.

It’s hard to stress the huge influence of movies over daily life in Nigeria. Watched by millions, they feature formulaic melodramas reminiscent of the early days of Hollywood cinema. A fascination with Nigerian movie stars forms the basis of Nollywood Dreams, a romantic comedy about this gargantuan industry and its stars. Award-winning Ghanaian Playwright Jocelyn Bioh is currently writing the live screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Once on This Island for Disney. She is eager to school us in African culture and she does it with a pencil-sharp wit. “I’m a comedic writer and I think comedy’s simply a funny way of being serious, and I’m able to get across messages that do have a lot of universality to them, even if the people are very specific.”

Yao Dogbe (Gbenga Ezie), Ernaisja Curry (Ayamma Okafor), Renea Brown (Dede Okafor), and Joel Ashur (Wale Owusu) (Photo/Margot-Schulman)

Sisters Dede (Renea S. Brown) and Ayamma (Ernaisja Curry) run their family’s Okafor travel agency in the capitol of Lagos. One day Ayamma hears of an open casting call for the female lead in an upcoming movie by famed Director Gbenga Ezie (Yao Dogbe) starring their girl crush, the handsome Nigerian screen star Wale Owusu (Joel Ashur).

Ayamma, with no prior acting experience yet determined to make her mark, reads for the part with Wale as the love interest. Although Wale finds her adorable and Gbenga sees her as his first choice, the glamorous movie star and Gbenga’s favorite leading actress Fayola (Yetunde Felix-Ukwu) intends to wage battle for the part – even if it takes blackmail or magical powers.

04 – Joel Ashur (Wale Owusu) and Jacqueline Youm (Adenikeh) (Photo/Margot Schulman)

Scenic Designer, Jonathan Dahm Robertson treats us to three sets on a cleverly constructed revolving stage. One for the travel agency, another for Gbenga’s Nollywood Dreams Studios and the third, a television interview set for Adenikah (Jacqueline Youm), Nigeria’s version of Oprah Winfrey. Throughout the story, Adenikah is seen hosting the celebs wearing ever higher dhukus (head-wraps) and resplendent asoebis (dresses) to reflect her star status. All costumes by designer Brandee Mathies are reflective of the African fashions of the day.

Director Raymond O. Caldwell heightens the humor and extracts terrific performances from the well-cast characters who speak in the lovely, lilting patois of Nigeria and display a singular talent for the kind of physical comedy we know from Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball.

A super fun, audience participation comedy with a happy ending.  What’s not to like?

With Sound Design by Nick Hernandez; Projection Design by Kelly Colburn; and Vocal/Dialect Coach Dawn-Elin Fraser.

Through July 3rd at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814. For tickets and information call the box office at 240 644-1100 or visit

Oslo ~ Round House Theatre ~ At the Lansburgh Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 30, 2019 

It’s a treat to have Bethesda-based Round House Theater present in DC’s Lansburgh Theatre.  Ongoing renovations of Round House are scheduled to be completed in mid-September in time to kick off their fall season.  An even better treat was the chance to see this exciting production of J. T. Rogers’s electrifying political drama and 2017 Tony Award-winning play, Oslo.  This historic set piece focusses on the intense back channel negotiations that culminated in the Oslo Peace Accords signed by Arafat and Peres in 1993 during the Clinton administration.  Originally crafted by two somewhat dorky economics professors and fleshed out under cloak and dagger, this sub rosa Declaration of Principles became the road map to the final agreement.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire) and Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour) Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

Banned from sitting down with the PLO, the Israeli government and the Palestinians needed proxies to begin negotiations.  Part truth and part imagined, it follows the twists and turns that prove to be a result of the countless “sticking points’ – the enmity between Muslim and Jew, ingrained paranoia, male egos, and the intricate posturing from such widely diverse, ferociously bargaining, personalities.

Cody Nickell (Terje Rød-Larsen), Erin Weaver (Mona Juul), and Kimberly Gibert (Marianne Heiberg). Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

Norwegian diplomats Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen take the lead on a project that demands behind-the-scenes maneuvering and uncompromised secrecy, especially in regard to the Americans, whom neither side trusted.  As a couple working under the guise of Terje’s obscure foundation, they coordinate every meeting, promising to stay neutral.  But it’s their quiet diplomacy that pushes the parties forward when they most want to quit.

Todd Scofield (Johan Jorgen Holst) and Kimberly Gilbert (Marianne Heiberg). Photo by Lilly King

Erin Weaver as Mona and Cody Nickell as Terje are superb in their roles as the ambitious married couple who uses every trick in their well-seasoned playbook to keep the men negotiating.  Throughout the play, Mona, Terje, Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Egeland, and others speak directly to the audience – mostly to keep us in the loop on their ever-evolving strategies – but also to assess how things are preceding and who is undermining the plan.  The dialogue is not all serious.  Gallows humor, a shared love for the cook’s Norwegian waffles, and clever asides provide a balance between the gravity of the situation and the hilarious foibles of the human condition.

Cody Nickell (Terje Rød-Larsen), Erin Weaver (Mona Juul), and Gregory Wooddell (Jan Egeland). Photo by Lilly King

Given all the moving parts and number of actors Ryan Rilette’s direction is extraordinary. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t loudly applaud the dramatic lighting by Jesse Belsky, atmospheric projections by Jared Mezzocchi, and the cleverly interlocking set by Misha Kachman that takes us repeatedly from Mona and Torje’s dining room and Ministry offices to the snowy mountain hideaway in Norway that provides cover for a series of clandestine meetings.

Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire), Gregory Wooddell (Ron Pundak), Juri Henley-Cohn (Uri Savir), and Sasha Olinick (Yair Hirschfeld) Juri Henley-Cohn (Uri Savir), John Taylor Phillips (Joel Singer), Sasha Olinick (Yair Hirschfeld), Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour), and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire). Photo by Lilly King

An electrifying and intricate political thriller.  Highly recommended.

With Erin Weaver as Mona Juul; Cody Nickell as Terje Rød-Larsen; Todd Scofield as Johan Jorgen Holst and Finn Grandal; Gregory Wooddell as Jan Egeland and Ron Pundak; Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Ahmed Qurie; Juri Henley-Cohn as Uri Savir; Sasha Olinick as Yair Hirschfeld; Ahmad Kamal as Hassan Asfour; Kimberly Gilbert as Marianne Heiberg and Toril Grandal; Alexander Strain as Yossi Beilin; Michael Sweeney Hammond as American Diplomat and Thor Bjornevog; John Taylor Phillips as Joel Singer; John Austin as Trond and German Husband; Susannah Morgan Eig as German Wife and Swedish Hostess; and Conrad Feininger as Shimon Peres.

Assistant Director Susannah Morgan Eig; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Sound Design and Composer Matthew M. Nielson.

Through May 19th at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street, NW Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 240.644.1100 or visit