The big news this summer seems to be the high profile replacements in long-running musicals. While I have no doubt that the other pair of actors who recently opened are terrific (I'll let you know what I think when I see them later this month), the bigger news may just be the arrival of Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley in the Pulitzer Prize/Tony Award winning production of next to normal. Also joining the cast full time is Meghann Fahy. They replace Tony winner Alice Ripley and Tony nominees J. Robert Spencer and Jennifer Damiano, respectively. Pretty impressive shoes to fill, to be sure, especially for Ms. Mazzie, who has the onus to replace a "legendary performance." While Ms. Fahy is a relative newcomer, Mr. Danieley and Ms. Mazzie are quite accomplished, including Tony nominations for her performances in Passion, Kiss Me, Kate and Ragtime. Impressive though both their resumes may be, these are demanding roles already made famous by the original cast.
It should go without saying that Michael Greif's direction and all of the technical elements of the production are as tight as ever, even with the pacing and some emphasis changes made to accommodate new interpretations. Any and all changes, by the way, neither quicken nor slow down the show, and actually serve the book and lyrics better than before.
The holdovers from the prior cast, Kyle Dean Massey, Adam Chanler-Berat and Louis Hobson, are to be commended, and not just for their longevity and continued freshness in their roles, but for adjusting, amplifying and all out changing their portrayals to fit the dynamic of the new leading payers.
Mr. Massey, it seems, has forsaken any and all bits that he "borrowed" or "mimicked" from his predecessor, Aaron Tveit. Aside from similar blocking, Massey is bringing a new Gabe to this new table, so significantly different is his performance. The connection between he and Ms. Mazzie is palpable and slightly uncomfortable, while his interactions with the others are definitely much more aggressive and menacing. This Gabe is the "superboy" his mother envisions for herself, but he is also the spectre of over-protection and a very real self-preservation. (This performance makes clear just why the authors have him reading The Catcher in the Rye in the attic.)
Mr. Chanler-Berat is still charming and his Henry is wonderfully played with all the enthusiasm of opening night. With Ms. Fahy's more subtle approach to things, it is much clearer why Henry is instantly attracted to Natalie, why he puts up with so much, and finally, why he loves her. There is somewhat less of a combative feel to the relationship now, which allows Chanler-Berat to "man up" a little more and nurture the girl of his dreams. You sense, now, a genuine fear that he may literally lose Natalie if he can't straighten her out, and a more overriding fear that Henry won't be the same without her.
Mr. Hobson's Dr. Madden has also transformed into a much more dynamic character, as he now seems able to compete with and be a "rock star" for the brand of crazy Ms. Mazzie brings to the table. He, too, shows a fear, like all of the rest, but his is more selfish. One gets the sense, with much more clarity now, that Dr. Madden is as successful and well-known as he is because he refuses to lose. He is somewhat more aggressive in persuading and later fighting for more electric shock therapy. This edge and harshness add a great deal to all of his scenes with Diana.
To be perfectly honest, it took me all of maybe the first five minutes of the show to relax and let myself take it all in as a fresh piece by a fresh cast. And it took maybe another ten minutes for me to stop comparing the newcomers with the recently departed cast. Why? Because all three have created completely original and, more importantly, completely valid - and at times revelatory - characters.
Ms. Fahy's Natalie is a teen aged girl whose life has forced her to live life in a reality that many teens don't have to live. She finds comfort in her rigid schedule of classes and piano rehearsals, rebuffs nearly everything that stands in her way as she pushes in a near frenzy to graduate early and get out of her home situation. That drive, though, is not the tough veneer that she thinks it is, when she succumbs to the charms of Henry who shows her that she can still have goals but can also enjoy life a little. Watching Ms. Fahy loosen up and eventually fall into a nearly deadly tailspin is an exercise in watching subtlety of acting. Her transformation is all the more moving, scary and ultimately rewarding because she is not so extreme all the time, and her "phases" seem to overlap and you often find yourself as surprised as she is that she gets into the trouble she does.
Ultimately, the way she and Ms. Mazzie coalesce as mother-daughter/rivals-friends, is rewarding because both have reached together a very real and grounded place to make their peace. When Ms. Fahy stands firm in her conviction for wanting something "next to normal" you see a young woman at a crossroads making a mature, informed decision, not a placating gesture. Finally, her voice is wonderfully easy on the ears, soaring when it needs to, and easing into her songs where appropriate, too. The modulation of her voice is definitely something this young actress has rolled into the completeness of her portrayal.
Mr. Danieley as Dan, the father struggling to keep the fragile pieces of his family puzzle together, has created an extremely complex rendering of the character, registering as much with his facial expressions as he does with his line readings and songs. This new Dan, like this new Natalie, has a veneer that is not nearly as tough as he thinks it is. Sadly, Dan's outward assuredness proves to be nothing against the hurdles he is about to face as his family falls apart. The dead giveaway here is that Mr. Danieley's eyes betray a constant undercurrent of sadness and abject terror. He is the deer in the proverbial headlights all the time. But then you can also see glimmers of love and pride in his family, and you see where he draws the strength to continue where many a weaker person would have left long ago. His love for Diana is very apparent, though you wouldn't say he wears his heart on his sleeve. Indeed, in many ways this Dan is as much parent-figure as husband, and that is simply heartbreaking. While his voice does not have the same belty quality as his predecessor's, it is not a weak instrument in any way. It is clear that Danieley has made the conscious choice to modulate his voice and to give it texture in order to convey the arc of his character. Don't misunderstand, though. He is fully in command of every song he sings, but character and text come first in this performance, "performing" comes in third.
For me, there are two spots that make or break Dan as a character for me. One is the "You Don't Know/I Am the One" argument sequence, which I will discuss shortly, and the final scene ("So Anyway/I Am the One/Light"). As for that final scene, let me just say that you would never know this man has only played the part a few weeks. He plays the full range of emotions with a clarity and specificity that makes this previously emotional scene an almost unbearably sad and then sublimely uplifting journey for both actor and audience. We are transported as never before.
The centerpiece of next to normal has always been the role of Diana, and Marin Mazzie not only handles the role, she owns it. While comparisons to Ms. Ripley are inevitable, they are made that much simpler because Ms. Mazzie has created a virtually new Diana, which fits in perfectly with the entirely “new” family currently onstage. Hers is a complex portrayal but completely different than any before her. This Diana is a complex blend of outward “craziness” and inward sorrow. And here, the veneer she has created for herself is not as tough as she thinks it is (like the rest) and is practically nonexistent. Her raw emotions are constantly exposed - very rarely does the actress fold herself up (literally and figuratively) as protection. Life has beaten this woman down and almost out. Series of therapies, drug regimens and all that happens to her during the actual show have piled on top of this woman, smothering nearly everything that remains.
The result is a performance full of tears, self-loathing, grasping desperately at straws and holding even more tightly to her son. All of this makes her argument (“You Don’t Know”) even more believable, her longing for normalcy (“I Miss the Mountains” - a definitive rendition) and her surrender (“There’s a Place”) more amplified, emotional and effective as it never has been before. Sobs were heard throughout the theatre as she moans in abject despair, “My baby! My baby!” as she struggles first with suicidal thoughts in act one, and later in act two when it is all fresh to her again after shock therapy. Both times, the actress, the role, and all of those witnessing it were as one. The soul-bearing aspects of this superb and brilliantly thought out performance are spellbinding.
I mentioned earlier that there are some significant changes in pacing, including a very pregnant pause during “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” when Diana interrupts Natalie’s epiphany. During that pronounced pause (the music stops) it becomes crystal clear where Diana and Natalie stand with each other, and strengthens Natalie’s argument to Henry immeasurably. And the pacing and deliberateness of the delivery by all three actors in the “You Don’t Know”/”I Am the One” scene has finally molded it into the meaningful scene that the authors must have intended, but never really came through (witness its use and, in my opinion, failure during the Tony Awards). It is still a powerful argument, where each is jockeying to have their say and actually be heard. But the careful enunciation and even more careful attention being paid to acting the scene versus vying for control by sheer volume has paid off in an extended hand from the audience - it nearly stopped the show the day I saw it - and even an bigger pay off in terms of character and plot development.
To sum it all up, this new next to normal is just that: new and revelatory, full of amazing performances and a leading lady that is, in my mind, even better than the amazing original. The excitement, urgency and thrill of the opening months is back. And this time I left the theatre feeling emotionally spent and theatrically thrilled. Not just because I saw several exciting star turns, but because I saw a fully realized piece of brilliant musical theatre.
(Photos by Joan Marcus.)
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