I've been here for the show, every high, every low.

Now that we're more than halfway through the summer, change is in the air for many of the Broadway shows that were honored at last year's Tony Awards. As our dear readers probably know by now, Hillary and I have followed Next to Normal since it opened in previews on Broadway last March. When this picture was taken in Tompkins Square Park shortly after our initial viewing of the show, little did we know that Next to Normal would shape the next year of our lives.

So, when Mr. J. Robert Spencer announced that his final performance as Dan would take place on May 16, we knew we had to see him one last time. Unfortunately, commuting to New York is not as easy from our respective homes as it is from Philadelphia, but what's an eight-hour bus ride when it comes to something as important as an original cast member departing his show after a truly phenomenal run. (Another explanation may be that Hillary and I are apparently incapable of staying away from New York City for more than two weeks.)

By the time we dropped off our bags at a friend's apartment, revisited the good ol' Westway Diner, and splurged on the delicious Pinkberry that we thought we'd have to survive the summer without, it was time to head to Schubert Alley, where Mr. Spencer came out to draw names from the lottery bucket, obviously soaking up every last moment of his time with the show. In the midst of enjoying our Pinkberry (dear company representatives: please, PLEASE expand to western Pennsylvania and Connecticut!), it occurred to us to check the cast board for any understudies. The following is a recreation of what happened when I walked calmly into the box office and glanced at the board, which happened to read AT THIS PERFORMANCE THE ROLE OF DIANA WILL BE PLAYED BY JESSICA PHILLIPS.

Me: *jumps up in the air, spins around, and speed-walks back outside* JESSICA'SONJESSICA'SONJESSICA'SONJESSICA'SON.


*We proceed to freak out for approximately 45 seconds, during which I left the world's most jumbled and enthusiastic voice mail*

After missing her by a single performance (as it seems we often do) a few weeks ago, it was a joy not only to see Ms. Phillips perform for the second time, but to go on opposite Mr. Spencer for the final time. It also meant that I have seen four different Dan/Diana pairings. My only complaint was that it was difficult to try and split my attention equally between Ms. Phillips and Mr. Spencer! Both actors have consistently delivered performances that make me contemplate aspects of the show that I'd never thought about before. It's the little nuances of Mr. Spencer's performance, therefore, that I'll really miss the most. From his entrance on "Who's up at this hour?" to the entirety of "I've Been" (especially the way he delivers the line "I know I have to help her/but hell if I know how"), to the way his Dan remains "steadfast and solid" for so long but eventually breaks down, Mr. Spencer will be sorely missed in his role. And unless a miracle happens, May 15th also served as the final time we will see Ms. Phillips before she departs the show to join the cast of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. We've already analyzed her brilliant portrayal of Diana in a previous post, and seeing Ms. Phillips' performance twice absolutely changed our perspectives on the character dramatically. And from "So Anyway" onward, both actors were struggling to contain their all-too-real emotions, adding to the dynamic between their characters.

The image from my seat of Mr. Spencer, silhouetted in the spotlight and a single tear dripping onto the floor, remains in my mind as the essence of that performance. I have never been so torn up about a cast member leaving as I was on the day the announcement came that he would be leaving the show, and both Hillary and I are so thankful to have been able to witness his performance one more time, and so close to the end of his run.

This past weekend, we journeyed to the Booth again to see another close-to-last performance, this time for Alice Ripley, Jennifer Damiano, and Brian D'Arcy James, who had reprised the role of Dan from the show's run at Second Stage. While Mr. Spencer's closing weekend felt very final to me, this performance seemed more of a celebration of the show's long journey since it opened on Broadway, and each cast member gave their all as the majority of the original cast prepared to take the stage together for the last time.

We found Mr. D'Arcy James to be a suitable (re)addition to the cast. I personally missed the tenacity and fortitude of Mr. Spencer's Dan at many points; Mr. D'Arcy James seemed to play the character as much, much more worn down from dealing with Diana's illness for so long, but the way he dealt with "How Could I Ever Forget" onward was very moving. I never felt that he gave the audience a glimpse of what Dan's relationship with Diana had once been, but I suppose that's simply a stark reality of their situation, one that may be more difficult for me to accept. Ms. Ripley's performance was a challenge and a joy to watch, as always; the way she invests herself in the character is truly incredible. (After watching her in the show many times, we've come to expect the occasional technical mishap or interesting line delivery from Ms. Ripley - this time, she nearly ended up on the floor of the stage, thanks to a slight mishandling of a chair by Louis Hobson at the end of "Who's Crazy / My Psychopharmacologist and I.") Ms. Damiano has perhaps impressed me the most over the past year, both due to her age (younger than us, which makes us feel somewhat like we haven't done anything with our lives) and her ability to adapt her characterization of Natalie to her vocal capabilities on any given day. Her chemistry with Adam Chanler-Berat's Henry will especially be missed.

Every show has "those" lines, the ones that hold a double meaning when a cast member's time with the show is dwindling. But with Next to Normal already being the emotional roller coaster that it is, "last" shows are difficult. I mean, every frickin' line in the show is about memories, or moving on, or holding on to the people you love. Yikes. So when Ms. Ripley sang, "So anyway, I'm leaving...I thought you'd like to know," or when Mr. Spencer sang, "When our long night is done," or when Ms. Damiano and Mr. Chanler-Berat sang "Hey #3/Perfect for You" for one of the last times...our hearts were breaking. For someone who's never bonded with a show and its cast, this post might seem a bit out of whack and over-dramatic. It's not as if the show itself is closing, after all; a new actor is hired, and the lights at the Booth Theater still go up eight times a week, right on schedule. But that first trip to the Booth in March 2009 was the beginning of quite a journey, both for us as friends and for the show itself. Change is exciting, that's for sure, and both Hillary and I are looking forward to catching real-life husband-and-wife pair Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie as Dan and Diana. But the fact remains that, when I look at the New York Times review that is taped to my wall, only two original actors still with the show. So we look forward to see what each of the four actors who has left moves on to, and what the new dynamic of the show becomes, while fondly remembering the original performances of the characters we connected with so deeply, and wishing the actors who played them all the best.

Coming soon: Thoughts on the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Memphis, which I enjoyed from student rush seats this weekend!


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