So Anyway I'm Leaving...For Good

Okay, this is our last post on Next to Normal. We promise. But seriously this time...seeing the tour together last weekend looks to have been the end of the road for us with our beloved show for a while. While I'd been fortunate enough to catch the tour a few times prior to its arrival in Philadelphia, I could not have been happier for Hillary to finally see the production so we could discuss the cast's interpretation of characters we've come to know quite well. If there's one thing the two of us pretty much rock at, it's analyzing any and every aspect of this show. So here we go, one last time...our thoughts on the show that has been a huge part of our lives for the past two and a half years! (Under the jump, because, let's face it, we're not capable of writing anything less than a novel when it comes to this show.)




First, the six main members of the tour family:

Alice Ripley as Diana: Arguably the most talked-about member of the tour cast, and not always for the most positive of reasons, message boards have been filled with discussions of the toll that Diana has taken on Ms. Ripley's voice. After hearing other peoples' comments, I'd literally expected her voice to be in shreds - and it's not, at all. Yes, she can clearly use a lengthy amount of time off to rest after the tour ends this month in Toronto. Yes, she sounded better at some performances I saw than others. No, she sounds nowhere near what she sounded like at the beginning of the Broadway run - but she doesn't sound BAD most of the time. By the beginning of the Philadelphia run, she was still delivering her trademark powerful, emotional sound, but most of her stranger pronunciations were gone and it was much easier to understand what she was singing. One particular highlight of seeing Ms. Ripley on stage once again was the power that she brings to the bridge of "I Am The One" ("You say that you KNOWWWWWWWW"). The only part of Marin Mazzie's performance that I never really loved, I didn't realize how much I missed Ms. Ripley's voice there until I heard it again. (Also, the new guitar riff that has been added in that section. Four for you, Tom Kitt.) On the acting side, Ms. Ripley's Diana has incredibly continued to evolve over time, and is not as "batshit crazy" as she tended to be towards the end of her Broadway run, which I love. (As hilarious as that was to watch, at times it tended to distract from the character's journey as a whole.) Simply put, Ms. Ripley IS Diana. She created this role and set the standard for each and every actress who has followed and will follow in her footsteps.

Asa Somers as Dan: While I never reached a point where I came to identify with Mr. Somers' Dan, as I did with so many of the other Dans I've seen, I think I began to understand why he plays the character as he does. Namely, the look on his face right before "A Light in the Dark," when he reaches out to Dr. Madden for the clipboard...it's obvious that he loves Diana so much that he knows he has to convince her to have the ECT, even though that terrifies him just as much as it terrifies her. Aside from that, though, I never really found the edginess that I loved so much about Bobby Spencer and Jason Danieley in particular, or the hints of internal hurt that peeked past the facade Dan has to put up each day. While it may be a choice on behalf of his director, Mr. Somers also rarely looks directly at Gabe, which has become a deciding factor for me in feeling a greater level of sympathy for Dan. I did, however, really love him in the transition from "It's Gonna Be Good (Reprise)" to "The Break," when he slumped against one of the poles on the first floor of the set in desperation when Gabe reappears to Diana, and fiddled a bit with the wedding ring on his finger.

Curt Hansen as Gabe: Mr. Hansen's portrayal of the Goodman son is definitely a much, much darker portrayal of Gabe than anyone else I've seen, even surpassing Aaron Tveit's characterization - he wants nothing more than to possess Diana, even though it's clearly destroying her. His physicality is also much more stiff, mechanical, and calculating, which took some getting used to (at first it makes him seem like a tool), but worked for me as the show moved further and further into act two and Gabe exerts more and more power over Diana. This culminated in the "I'm Alive (Reprise)," as it should. Additionally, the "Make Up Your Mind/Catch Me I'm Falling (Reprise)" revealed another striking difference in his characterization. I always felt that Kyle Dean Massey's Gabe wanted Diana to "make up her mind to be free" from everything - the doctor and him - because he finally realized that his presence was absolutely destructive to her. Mr. Hansen's Gabe, on the other hand, wants Diana to leave her doctor so she'll be free to come back to him (when she says, "Goodbye, Dr. Madden," for instance, he smiles as the doctor walks offstage) - but when Diana says goodbye to both Dan and him in "So Anyway," that's why he's so devastated. Interestingly, there's also a tangible sense of malice between Mr. Hansen's Gabe and Henry, because Gabe sees Henry as stepping into his rightful place as a brother/friend figure to Natalie. Gabe really has no malice towards Natalie, he just wants to be there for her! (Side note: we finally got to hear Mr. Hansen hit the high note at the end of "I'm Alive" last weekend. We flailed.)

Emma Hunton as Natalie: I've always said that I can't possibly pick a favorite Natalie, because each actress that I've seen has portrayed her so differently. That said....Ms. Hunton's Natalie is so close to perfect that it hurts. I could literally write a novel about her in the role. This girl is a superstar and completely stole the show. Her Natalie is a smart, sarcastic bitch in the most endearing sense of the term. She's the only Natalie who convinces herself that she can't be with Henry because of her family problems alone - other Natalies, save for Jennifer Damiano, always leaned more towards the teenage insecurities and nerves of having a first boyfriend. And right from asking her mom if she'll be able to come to her piano recital ("Mom, the calendar's still on April of last year...Happy Easter, Mom"), it's so clear that Ms. Hunton's Natalie tries to put herself out there time and time again, and is failed by someone - usually her mother - over and over again. Her transition throughout "Song of Forgetting" - from laughing hysterically at the thought that her mom doesn't remember who she is ("Yeah, she never paid attention to me before, but not knowing who I AM?! That's hilarious") to realizing the horrible truth is absolutely enthralling and makes it difficult to watch any other actor on the stage. She reached Meghann-Fahy-on-closing-night levels of tears during "Maybe (Next to Normal)," which subsequently caused us to lose it completely. And by "Hey #3/Perfect For You," it's even more obvious that Natalie's biggest obstacle to overcome is that she's literally terrified of turning into her mother - a worry, or fear, that we all have, on some level. Ms. Hunton's voice also seems to be holding up better than any other actress who's played the role for a lengthy amount of time. And her "Portland" line wins.

Super side note: recently, we've noticed that when Natalie flips a shit during "I'm Alive," she tears up a paper. Now, you don't see what's on the paper, but we have theories (of course). At first, we thought maybe it was a bad test grade or something, but after another evaluation, we now think it was something good or important - Natalie being recognized at an Honors reception or some really good piece of news she wanted to share with her family. And then, after she realizes her mom is never going to get better, that her life is going to suck for the foreseeable future, Natalie just gets fed up and tears up the paper. It really speaks to the way she constantly puts herself out there, only to be disappointed time and time again (it also speaks to the insane number of times we've seen this show, but we accept our insanity and bask in it). We were also big fans of the way Ms. Hunton's Natalie screams at Dan in that scene. So powerful.

Preston Sadleir as Henry: Mr. Sadleir brings a wonderfully clear voice and a lot of character to Natalie's lovable, "bit of a stoner" boyfriend. His Henry is more nerdy than dorky - we'd compare him most closely to Adam Kantor in the role - and he plays the awkward progression of a teenage relationship well. On a funny note, we loved the dance moves that he busted out along with each mention of the Spring Formal Dance, and on a sentimental note, we loved that his first "Hey!" in "Hey #3/Perfect For You" isn't dorky or overemphasized, because he realizes how monumental it is that Natalie did come. He really shows the audience how Henry matures over the course of the show, from a boy with a crush to a mature man capable of giving Natalie the love and support she needs.

Jeremy Kushnier as Dr. Fine/Dr. Madden: Although inhabiting not the largest of roles, Mr. Kushnier makes his mark onstage. Fittingly, he sounds like he could sing for Poison or fit right in at Rock of Ages, which makes for some hilarious moments during the Dr. Rockstar sequence. (His final riff is bumped up even higher than the notes that Louis Hobson used to sing.) Where Mr. Hobson used to emerge as a rockstar for those few scenes and then became himself again, Mr. Kushnier seems more like a rockstar all the time, part of which peeks through with the snark he shows on the "sexually frustrated soccer mom" line.

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In accordance with our Next to Normal experiences, we managed to catch several understudies on tour as well.

Jason Watson as Dan: We LOVED him, okay?! His Dan is most similar to Michael Berry's, with a bit of Jason Danieley thrown in for good measure. He's easily the youngest of them all, and the most naive; it was easy to see that he and Diana had met when they were very young, and that he'd never been tested like this before (especially as he sang, "'cause I've never been alone/I could never be alone" at the end of "I've Been"). Toward the end of "Why Stay/A Promise," he yelled the line "The promise I made? I'll make it brand new!" and caused every single person in the front row to lose their shit. And most heartbreakingly, his Dan is ever the optimist, which made his breakdown in "I Am The One (Reprise)" even more appropriate and poignant. And unlike Mr. Somers, Mr. Watson looked RIGHT at Gabe several times (in the middle of "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," when he turns away and starts texting, and on the "there's nothing there!" line, when he looked right into Gabe's eyes). To me, this makes the relationship between Dan and Gabe much more compelling, and Dan a more sympathetic character.

Pearl Sun as Diana: It's truly a credit to the brilliant actresses that we've seen in the role of Diana that none has ever left us wishing for more. Ms. Sun played her character as very nervous, and very aware of the moments when she was caught sinking back into her illness (i.e. the way she broke down after making sandwiches on the floor - "I guess I got carried away"). We also never expected such a powerful voice to emerge from such a small woman - in spite of how much we love Ms. Ripley and Ms. Mazzie, it was wonderful to hear the role belted clearly again. Ms. Sun's Diana steadily gains steam throughout the show, and by the end, I felt confident knowing that she'd be okay on her own after watching her finally gain the strength to leave Gabe behind. Following her performance, Hillary and I discussed what the cultural implications of casting an Asian woman in the role meant for the show's emotional arc - specifically, that Asian cultures typically don't encourage large displays of emotion. However, we did not feel that this sidenote distracted from Ms. Sun's performance. She certainly wasn't a faucet, ala Ms. Mazzie, but when Ms. Sun did cry, it was at a very crucial point in the story (i.e. the moment when she falls under hypnosis), and reminded us very much of parts of Jessica Phillips' performance.

Perry Sherman as Gabe: After going two and a half years without seeing a Gabe understudy, finding out that I'd get to see Mr. Sherman in the role was rather exciting, to say the least, especially since I'd seen him as Melchior in the national tour of Spring Awakening a few years ago. (Picture a reaction much like the one when we found out we'd get to see Jessica Phillips go on during Bobby Spencer's last weekend in the Broadway production.) Quite simply, he was wonderful. The first Gabe I've seen who wasn't blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and actually didn't resemble the rest of his family much at all, Mr. Sherman also played very young, and was the least physical of the Gabes I've seen, emitting more of a "big boy" presence than a sexual one. In many ways, his portrayal of the son was 100% the opposite of Mr. Hansen - not really menacing at all, but very tender, just wanting to protect everyone and be acknowledged by each member of his family. To me, his Gabe clearly idolized his mother, and saw himself as Diana's security blanket; at the end of act one, he realized that he needed his mother just as much as she needed him, and by "I Am The One (Reprise)," he was just as devastated as (and maybe a bit more taken by surprise than) Dan when Diana left them. His dynamic with both Dan and Natalie was, again, not malice, but a certain pride and happiness that Diana loved him (more). His voice was different as well - more of a "soaring" feel than the "cutting edge" sound I'd use to describe Mr. Hansen's vocals as well as Mr. Massey's and Mr. Tveit's - but fit the role perfectly, especially with his gorgeous falsetto. And unfortunately/ironically, I got to hear him sing through "I'm Alive" not just once, but one and a half times, due to a medical emergency in the audience that caused the show to stop in the middle of the song and then restart.

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At first, it was a little trippy to see Next to Normal somewhere that wasn't the Booth, in a city that wasn't New York, with a cast other than the talented individuals we'd come to love so much on Broadway. But as we left the theater last weekend and took one last look at the three-tiered set, Hillary and I found a certain comfort in realizing that the show more than stands on its own, regardless of cast, audience, or location. One of my absolute favorite parts of seeing this show on tour was experiencing the journey it puts audiences on with an audience who had never experienced it before, and hearing those audible gasps of recognition and revelation - the kind of reactions that just didn't happen anymore by the end of the Broadway run. The work that Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey wrote is so strong and lasting that we STILL found new material to discuss, after seeing the show [insert many times here], and the powerful nature of this work of art will remain for some time to come.

If we may wax poetic and sickeningly sentimental for a moment, we would like to close with this thought: Everyone deserves to have a show like Next to Normal - that show which affects us so profoundly that we can't remember a time when we didn't have its music or its message in our lives. Next to Normal has been a part of our lives for the past two and a half years, and it will continue to impact us, in ways both big and small, every day. We feel so fortunate, grateful, and blessed to have experienced its magic one more time. Flash forward to us, 10, 15 or 20 years from now, sitting in front of our televisions and crying our eyes out when the revival of Next to Normal wins Best Revival of a Musical at the 20__ Tony Awards. We called it first, y'all.

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