This Saturday will mark the first anniversary of the first Broadway preview of next to normal. I wonder how many people thought it would last this long? I mean, the quality of it is undisputable, but its subject matter doesn't seem congruent with a long run on the main stream. And yet, here we are! No doubt, unless this is your first time at my blog, you know that I have an on-going love affair with all things n2n. Well, I saw the show again, this time specifically to see Jessica Phillips in the role of Diana, usually (and excellently) played by Tony-winner Alice Ripley. I had seen Ms. Phillips before and was completely taken by her performance, and I wanted to see her again to see how she's grown in the role.
I saw her at the Sunday afternoon matinee this past weekend, after about a week and a half of doing the role consistently. I know it is the understudy's job to know the show, but she REALLY knows her stuff!
The quality of a piece, I think, is really tested when it comes out of its natural habitat, so to speak. Sometimes that quality is revealed (or not) with a national touring or regional production. Sometimes, especially as a show continues its run, the quality is shown in the stabilty of it over the long haul. Well, as the 400 performance mark grows closer, I am happy to report that next to normal is in pristine shape - as fresh feeling and tight as when it first wowed the critics. The rest of the company, save for Ms. Phillips and Kyle Dean Massey are the originals, and they are not simply skating through show after show. This was the 7th of 8 on a row with one more hours later, and they all bring it to the stage with a fierce intensity, anchored by that intangible settling that happens as they really have dug into the piece. Settling, in this case, of course means becoming more comfortable and more in depth. Each actor has really found places to add layers of emotion and places to make the piece richer.
J. Robert Spencer still manages to find the profound sorrow his character faces in the show's final moments. And, interestingly, opposite Ms. Phillips, he comes across slightly less beaten down by his circumstances and just a bit more forceful. He also connects very well with his daughter, even considering that for most of the play, they are like ships passing in the night. In fact, one of the delights of the production as it now stands is watching Natalie and Dan wrangle for position as they become surrogate parents for their floundering mother/wife. Jennifer Damiano has improved an already terrific performance, really showing up there why she was Tony nominated. Watching her work through teen angst and serious family issues is watching complexity personified. It is also very interesting watching her adapt to Ms. Phillips' take on Diana. Her interpretation of the mother role is more closley hewn to Natalie than Ms. Ripley's in that Ms. Phillips brings a smart-ass edginess to the role early on, not unlike Natalie. Miss Damiano responds in kind by subtly taking on the mannerisms of Diana, making the parallels between the two clearer and more intriguing.
Louis Hobson has maintained his dual role performance very well, doing as much as he can with a character that often just fills in the gaps. He is consistently funny where he needs to be and down right shocking when he needs to be blunt. As Henry, Natalie's boyfriend, Adam Chanler-Berat continues to mine a deceptively rich role for nuance and deep feeling. Watching him take his character's journey is a definite highlight of the performance, and he, like his scene partner, has really worked on helping us see the parallels between the path Henry and Natalie are on and the path already trod by Dan and Diana. Mr. Berat also has a wonderful voice - a powerful belt, an emotion-filled falsetto - and an acting style that is so easy to fall for. He is smooth and relaxed, strong and forceful - an anchor in a sea of tumultuous waves.
This was also my second time seeing Kyle Dean Massey and boy, has he grown in the role. Perhaps he is more in command of the role (or maybe he is even just getting better breath now that he has gotten used to all the stairs), but he has an amazingly powerful belt, most evident in the now nearly show-stopping "I'm Alive." He has taken the fine work his predecessor did with the role and really made it his own - and even better, I think. Mr. Massey has has made some very interesting acting choices that both endear his Gabriel to us, and even makes us a little frightened of him. In act two, there is a seriously sinister edge to his portrayal, and an almost strangling possession over his mother. And I won't give it away, but the final scene between he and Dan leaves more perplexing questions than it does answers. The writers, director and performers have collaborated to make a crafty, thought-provoking and ambiguous ending.
The object of my attendance, though, really did not disappoint. Jessica Phillips has one of the loveliest vocal instruments on Broadway today. She manages to get all of the emotion out of the role without sacrificing vocal quality or even the threat of vocal troubles, where as Ms. Ripley uses blips in her voice to convey character. Ms. Phillips' take on "I Miss the Mountains" is revelatory, a stunning piece that could stand on its own. Watching her try to deal with Diana's issues with a self-deprecating sense of humor allows us an approach to Diana that has otherwise been missing. And watching it dissolve into frustration, then anger, then defeat is heart-breaking. The entire "You Don't Know"/"I Am the One" sequence is a thrilling juggenaut of of emotion, as well played as any Shakespearean scene. She and Mr. Spencer have an almost matador/bull realationship in this sequence that is just awesome to watch. (The rest of the company really builds on this moment too, with unbelieveably powerful renditions of "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" and "I'm Alive" back to back. Talk about feeling electric.
Perhaps best of all is that act two as a whole has really grown. Watching Diana and Natalie create a tenuous new relationship is both difficult to watch and sublimely satisfying, as is watching the dissolution of Dan and Diana's marriage, while Henry grows into the man Gabriel might have been. The satisfied sigh the audience gives off following the "Next to Normal"/Natalie arrives at the dance sequence is a true catharsis. The smile on Mr. Berat's face when she shows up says it all.
The best news is that no matter who plays the show, next to normal is in possibly better shape than ever. Not a lot of shows can say that a year in, unfortunately. It is a comfort (both mentally and on your wallet) to know that even with the understudy in, you are still getting your money's worth.
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