This weekend, I had the great fortune to travel down to Washington, DC and visit the Kennedy Center to see the National Tour of next to normal. An enormous space, it is even more grand and elegant in person than you can see during the Kennedy Center Honors telecast. The show is playing the smaller of the two main theatres, The Eisenhower. The other, which you see on TV is The Opera House, where the National Tour of Wicked is currently playing.
As all of you who follow my blog know, I am a huge fan of next to normal, having seen it several times on Broadway, including performances with understudy Jessica Phillips, replacement cast lead Marin Mazzie, and, of course, Tony-winning actress Alice Ripley, who is repeating her work on the tour. The show remains vibrant, edgy and continuously thrilling. And yet, I have to admit a little something is missing this time around.
It couldn't be the staging, as Michael Greif and Sergio Trujillo have painstakingly recreated their complex, thought-provoking direction and musical staging, respectively. And the entire design team has basically provided an exact replica of what appeared on the Booth Theatre stage in New York. Kevin Adams' lighting is as amazing as ever. And yet, it could be, that the cast, now comfortable in their roles, have taken some liberties in timing, and some small staging changes that, little by little, add up to just enough make this touring version just a bit less in the impact department than its Broadway parent.
Emma Hunton's take on the role of Natalie supports both Sadleir's take on Henry and Diana's initial take on her daughter, "a freak." A tense and intense portrayal that goes far beyond teen angst, Hunton imbues Natalie with a complex mixture of world-weariness, biting sarcasm, and a disarming vulnerability. Her voice is crystal clear, powerful, and strong, and her delivery of "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" reveals a deep anger and even deeper pain. Needless to say, it gets one of the strongest hands of the evening. She is also an amazing scene partner for Ms. Ripley, during the "next to normal" scene, where she bravely confronts her long-absent mother, vowing not to shed another tear in the matter, and finally cracks, letting the sobs spill forth during a gratifying coming together of mother and daughter. In short, Miss Hunton departs the furthest from her Broadway predecessors, and the pay-off is terrific.
The little things may add up to an ever so slightly diminished return in this version. Even so, next to normal is still, and by far, the most exhilarating and best American musical in years.
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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