Understudy Madness

Michelle and I have an admitted weakness for understudies. We love the people who normally play the role, but we also love to see an understudy give their take on the performance, with their own unique interpretation of the material and the different nuances they give the character. Over the past couple of weeks, we were fortunate enough to see two understudies in roles that we have been trying to see for months (literally).

The first portion of our understudy extravaganza was finally seeing Jessica Phillips go on for Alice Ripley as Diana Goodman in Next to Normal. This has been a life goal of ours ever since... I would say about the fourth time we saw the show? That sounds about right. It's not that we didn't like Alice Ripley or were tired of her performance - nothing could be further from the truth - but we had heard wonderful things about Ms. Phillips and were eager to see her in the role. She was, in a word, phenomenal. Her voice, in contrast to Ms. Ripley's, has more purity and clarity of tone. Ms. Phillips also plays Diana less over-the-top and more vacillating between reality and the fantasy of her illness. While Ms. Ripley certainly originated and created a strong, compelling character, she does tend to play Diana "crazier" than Ms. Phillips does. Watching Ms. Ripley, I get the sense that it is the illness that controls Diana, but when I saw Ms. Phillips, I saw more of Diana's struggle to control and conquer her illness.

There were moments when Ms. Phillips would allow Diana to begin to lose control but would then visibly rein herself in and regain control. For instance, when Diana is making sandwiches on the floor during the opening number of the show and says "I think the house is spinning," Ms. Phillips played Diana as having a greater awareness of her loss of control and trying to pretend that everything was fine. The ups and downs of her struggle were more visible, and that translated to her rendition of "I Miss the Mountains" being the strongest I have ever heard. Vocally, it was amazing - Ms. Phillips added in some riffs that were just incredible - and the pure tone of her voice was poignant and beautiful. I was almost moved to tears. Ms. Phillips also played Diana more resigned and upset with her situation, versus the anger that often pervades Ms. Ripley's performances. Ms. Phillips' "You Don't Know" was filled with resignation and sadness, and her "Why Stay? / A Promise" and the scene preceding it was the emotional high point of the show for her. It was incredibly powerful to see her struggle so with her illness and the reality that Gabe just wasn't real.Lastly, and perhaps most heartbreaking on a personal level, was the way Ms. Phillips portrayed Diana's relationship with Diana. During "Make Up Your Mind / Catch Me I'm Falling," Diana says, "We had Natalie to... and I know she knows..." In the past, when I had seen the show, Ms. Ripley always seemed to say that line flippantly, with a matter-of-fact tone to her voice. With Ms. Phillips, it was a realization and admittance that she had completely ignored her daughter for years and that she was born out of a need to replace the son Diana herself had lost. Ms. Phillips' delivery of this line simply killed me. I loved it, as I loved her entire performance. Her Diana was not better or worse than Ms. Ripley's; it was merely a different take on the character, one that truly embodied the notion of keeping the plates all spinning, with a smile so white and winning all the way.

The second part of our understudy adventures occurred on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, when we had the incredible opportunity to see Jay Armstrong-Johnson go on as Claude in Hair. This, too, was a life goal of ours, and so when Twitter informed us he would be going on for both shows that day, we jumped in the car and headed for the city. We were able to secure discounted tickets, and then were able to move up to the front of the balcony due to empty seats. Seeing Mr. Johnson go on was, to put it mildly, a treat. Having seen him before as a Tribe member and watching his videos repeatedly on YouTube, Michelle and I were already in love with his voice (and his rad dance moves - if you haven't, YouTube "The Ballad of Sarah Berry" and just watch the boy break it down). His performance was nothing short of spectacular. His voice, specifically his belt, is insane, and he added some great riffs in "I've Got Life," and his "Where Do I Go?" was fantastic as well. I think the aspect of Mr. Johnson's performance that I enjoyed the most was the youthfulness he brought to the role. Gavin Creel is incredible as Claude, but sometimes I have trouble distinguishing him as an actor from him as an activist. His activism and leadership outside of the theater give him a confidence (at least in my eyes) that is almost contrary to the character of Claude, who really just wants to be, without any pressures or obligations. To me, Mr. Johnson portrayed Claude's uncertainty about his own future and survival so subtly; he wasn't outwardly fearful, but he also didn't seem to have the same peace and acceptance of his future either. He also has an incredible stage presence, no matter what he's doing. Even if he was not the focal point of the scene or song, I still found my eyes being drawn to him as he danced or interacted with other Tribe members. I was so impressed with his performance and so grateful that I got to see him go on.


Post a Comment