By Keith Loria
Special to the Times
A story about a mother who struggles with a bipolar disorder may not seem like the most obvious choice for a rock musical, but as its three Tony awards and Pulitzer Prize will attest, “Next to Normal” is one of the most memorable and powerful productions to grace the Broadway stage in some time.
The McLean Community Players will be staging the ground-breaking musical, written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt, at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays from Feb. 1-16 at the Alden Theatre.
“It’s not about a bipolar woman. It’s a story of love, family, growth and challenge,” said Nicky McDonnell, who plays the somewhat distraught mom, Diana. “It has an incredible story, a simple story in many ways, and it’s very moving, complicated and challenging and those are my favorite pieces.”
A stage vet, it’s been a while since McDonnell has dabbled in theatre, but the opportunity to play such a strong role was too hard to resist.
“The writing is some of the best I have seen in a long time, especially for an original work,” she said. “Diana’s a phenomenal character and it’s exciting that so many people have been drawn to this.”
The cast also stars Brent Stone as Dan, Catherine Callahan as Natalie, Nick DuPre as Gabe, Alex Stone as Henry and Quinn McCord as the Doctor. Combined, the group has garnered more than 38 local theater nominations and 12 awards.
“This particular cast is the most honest I’ve ever worked with and it’s been great,” said Lisa Anne Bailey, the director of the show, who fell in love with the musical the first time she saw it performed at Arena Stage.
“What intrigued me was the fact that it is so different and has a little dark side to it; it’s not ‘Oklahoma’ for sure,” she said. “The challenge as a director is to make sure you don’t go over-the-top and for the actors, they need to really let go to do it right. It needs to be organic and real.”
As most “Next to Normal” fans know, the musical originated Off-Broadway, before heading for a two-month run at the Arena Stage, followed by a successful stint on Broadway, where it picked up 11 Tony nominations in 2009.
There were a number of changes to the production between its time in D.C. and New York, and Bailey, having seen both, wanted to add her personal spin on the story in MCP’s version.
“One of the things I wasn’t fond of in either of the productions I saw was the way I as an audience member left feeling about the husband,” she said. “We’ve done a little spin on that so he’s left the way I want him to be left, and much stronger.”
Bailey starred in two plays at MCP but this is her first time directing at the theatre.
“It’s the biggest challenge I ever had,” she said. “This is 99.9 percent sung through, so that was a challenge to make sure it sounded conversational and that people weren’t just breaking into song.”
Joining Bailey in telling the story for MCP are music director David Rohde and a creative team of assistant director Kathryn Brais, stage manager Joan Lada, sound designer Stan Harris and lighting designer Jeff Auerbach.
“It’s a multi-layered story of love, loss and family and the choice of coping mechanisms that each household member and even those who touch this family utilize in order to survive,” Bailey said. “The growth patterns of each person and each relationship are challenged, dissected and scrutinized as they each attempt to achieve their own normal.”