Monday, January 17, 2011

Feeling Electric: Next to Normal's Closing Performance

This season sure has been an exciting one of high, lows and everything in between.  In all of my years as a theatre goer, I don't think any other single season has afforded me such rare and varied experiences, all of which rate among the very top of my list.  But nothing really prepared me for the amazing thrill of last night's bittersweet closing performance of next to normal.

Outside the Booth Theatre, Sunday evening,
January 16, 2011

As any of you who read my blog regularly know, this show is among my absolute favorites of all time, and certainly my favorite amongst current shows.  I have championed this production from nearly the very beginning; from the first time I came alone to the Booth theatre, discovering the gem that it is, all the way through my 8th (or is it 9th?) and final trip last night.  Soaking in the original cast's energy and passion, feeling that sense that these characters were thoroughly soaked into them, rather than just the new clothing of new characters.  Watching Alice Ripley's brave, no holds barred, messy meltdown, or Jennifer Damiano's heartbreaking spiral out of control, or the shock and bitter sadness at finding out for the first time that Aaron Tveit's vibrant performance was really that of a long lost child, were certainly thrills of those first visits.  Discovering not only the genuine brilliance of understudy Jessica Phillips, but also the strength of the rest of the company, particularly J. Robert Spencer, as they rose to the occasion and embraced a decidedly different take on the role of Diana.  And, finally, the absolute thrill of watching a mostly new "family" bring this brutally honest story to life - Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley not only kept the show running, they breathed new life into the piece.  And the sensual menace of Kyle Dean Massey and the maddening stolid, angry performance of Meghann Fahy brought out new and troubling depths to their characters.  Finally, through it all - cast absences, awards won and lost, cast changes and everything else one could throw at a small, daring musical, Louis Dobson and Adam Chanler-Berat went with every punch and curve ball and ultimately, through the course of the show's entire run, provided a solid foundation of support, familiarity and a willingness to reexamine characters that had long been ingrained into their "acting bones." 

Those hoping for ticket cancellations braved the
frigid temperatures for the chance at one last ticket.

And the brilliance of the piece as theatre - design elements (sets, lights and costumes) perfectly in sync, the direction so spare and tight, full of meaning through every labored push of the dining room table down stage, to the dangerous swinging and desperate cling to every support beam on the structure, to the frantic runs up and down those staircases - has been a true joy to behold as fan, student, and practitioner of theatre.

Bringing all of that previous experience to this final experience was something I think I really needed.  People often speak of shows that they could relate to, that changed their lives, that forced them to reexamine their own lives and relationships.  For me, next to normal, was all of that and more.  Finally understanding some of my beloved grandmother's quirks and short-comings because of the show certainly helped me get a grasp on my own upbringing and reaffirmed my love for her, was well as a better understanding of why my mother (her daughter) both adored and hated her own mother.  Then, too, is watching a family face and deal with what is a mountain of issues and still survive, albeit broken, but not unfixable, brought with it a personal sense of appreciation for my own family, together, struggling at times, but still together.

The closing night audience files in.

And so, even as we lined up down 45th street under the darkened marquees of recently closed productions, the feeling of excitement and expectation filled the air, as we, mostly longtime fans and repeat customers (I can only imagine what first timers to the show must have thought, right?) filed in for our last visit to the Goodman home at the Booth Theatre on Broadway.  Maybe it was me imposing my own feelings on everything I saw, but the entire house staff had the look of happiness and sadness all at once on their faces.  Did the merchandise girl really look upset as she announced that all that was left of the show t-shirts was double X size and that was all they had left in stock, period?  Was it me, or did the usher's voice catch a little as he handed me my Playbill and talk-whispered, "I hope you enjoy the show"?

As we waited for the performance to begin, it was an honor to see Michael Greif shaking hands of well-wishers, and a sense of celebration as Tim Kitt hugged, took pictures with and signed Playbills for anyone who asked, and a real sense of "full circle" as Greif, Kitt and Brian Yorkey met with original workshop member Anthony Rapp in that odd little center aisle of the orchestra section at the Booth. 

The arrival of the musicians onstage was greeted with thunderous applause and screaming cheers of appreciation.  And then it suddenly stopped.  For the last time that evening the audience was completely silent, as if we, as one, were paying our final respects to a true friend.  Then, those first notes began, and the entire musical beginning to the show was lost amid the screams and cheers.  Lights up on a worrying Marin Mazzie and a coming in late Kyle Dean Massey, and the applause began, stopping maybe a full 2 minutes or more later, each actor trying to maintain composure and some semblance of their pre-show character preparation.  Still, from up close, you could see them both struggling to remain even simply composed, and finally giving in to the roar of love and approval being given them.  The scene started shakily, but within a line or two things were right on track.  That is until Jason Danieley's entrance again stopped the show for a good minute, the band vamping their hands off.  Then came the thunderous ovation for Meghann Fahy, who, I have to say, at that point was the picture of professionalism.  Similar ovations greeted both Adam Chanler-Berat and a truly bewildered looking Louis Hobson.

Soon the show itself took over, and the cast attacked the piece with elegance and style - nothing added for the final show, no real breaks in character (until the very end).  No, it was to be a next to normal that everyone got every time they saw it fresh.  Except it was much more.  Marin Mazzie, in particular, gave a riveting, gutsy, angry and almost disturbingly fierce performance, and every actor took her lead.  Meghann Fahy, knowing how Natalie must parallel Diana, matched each piercing barb, frantic plea and desperate reach right down the line.  Similarly, Jason Danieley and Adam Chanler-Berat connected in the most emotionally intense ways.  And I am certain that neither Kyle Dean Massey nor Louis Hobson were ever more intensely "alive" and "rock star," respectively, at any other performance I had seen.

An ovation for longest-running cast member,
Adam Chanler-Berat.

Throughout the entire performance key scenes and songs were applauded.  The show stopped several times as the audience showered "I Miss the Mountains,"  "Superboy and the Invisible Girl," and "I'm Alive," and others.  The "Catch Me I'm Falling" sequence got a very strong hand, as did Dan and Diana's act two argument that ends with the music box shattered and their lives finally torn apart.  But the three biggest hands of the evening had to be following "You Don't Know/I Am the One" - which I have never seen so expertly delivered, the final "Light" sequence, and perhaps most touchingly, the scene between Henry and Natalie when she arrives at the dance.  Mr. Chanler-Berat valiantly tried to not let the overwhelming emotions of the moment get the best of him, but he began to cry, Meghann Fahy began to cry, and all but the most stolid in the audience began to cry.  It was a true familial catharsis, and we together mourned an impending loss and revelled in the unique bond between cast members and their adoring audience.  The final number was far from over as the audience rose to its feet and, tears pouring down faces, bravely reached the end and final blackout together. (I should say that as I type this, I am crying, again.)

Producer David Stone takes the stage to
give a closing night speech.

The company watches as their producer
pays tribute to them and their next to normal family.

As the company took several bows, producer David Stone took the stage to deliver an eloquent, and brief, but very heartfelt and emotional thank you speech.  As you could hear audience members continue to sob, and as the cast hugged, cried and congratulated each other, Mr. Stone continued.  At several points during his farewell, the audience gave standing ovations - to cast and company, to Adam Chanler-Berat, the only cast member to have been with the show through its entire 3 and a half year gestation, to Michael Greif, and to both Brian Yorkey and Tim Kitt, who looked like proud new fathers and overwhelmed with emotion at the same time.  The cast took a final bow, waved, blew kisses to us and the clung to each other as they left the stage.  And, fittingly, the majority of the audience remained standing and not moving until the band completed its final walk out.  They received the final ovation of the night.  I don't think a single person at the Booth Theatre last night felt anything less than electric.

If you click to enlarge this picture, you can make
out Tom Kitt, who is almost dead center in the photo,
and Brian Yorkey about 3 seats back.

I am personally sad that something I love so much is no longer.  Like a death in the family, I miss it very much already, but take great solace in the fact that this show will live on for years in hundreds of new and exciting productions.  Such is both the beauty and the downfall of live theatre.  I am a better, different person because of the show.  And I am grateful that from now on, I will always recognize that normal is too far away, but something next to normal can be pretty amazing.

(Photos by my buddy Mike, who is the reason I got to see and have this amazing final experience.  I will love you, Michael, for many things over the course of our lives, but this night will always be among my most cherished.)

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  1. Jeff, I am cracking up right now because I'm in your blog, or at least, the back of me is. I must have been sitting 2 or 3 rows behind you. I'm in the middle of that photo, with the long, brown curly hair, in the brown/black sweater dress (behind/between the guy in the blue shirt and the guy in the vest next to him). I wish I'd known you were there to say hello and thank you for this wonderful blog, in person. Thank you, in particular, for such a heartfelt recap of last night. It was an unforgettable night. At times it really did seem like the cast and the audience were doing their best to get through it together. I will probably catch the tour when it comes through Philly and/or DC, but I'm so grateful I could be there last night to help see the show off. I remember how excited and relieved I was when I first learned that the N2N would be going to Broadway. I'd seen it twice at Arena, and never have I felt so strongly that a show simply needed to live. That it would then go on to have the life it's had seems like icing on the cake. I did get to thank Michael Greif for N2N, but not last night- rather the previous Sunday night at the final performance of In the Heights. I had the ridiculous good fortune to be sitting directly in front of him (I mean, seriously, what are the odds on something like that?). I still can't quite believe that happened. I still can't quite believe these shows are gone.

  2. Sorry I'm not always as open (emotive? :)) as you are, but my feelings are the same. It was a real pleasure to share this with you last night.

    It also struck me that the Gabe-Dan scene got a show-stopping round of applause.

  3. Londyn!

    LOL! Now we both know each other by the backs of our heads! And what a pleasure to have shared this experience with you, someone who can fully appreciate the solemn and hilarious, and the personal passion for live theatre!

    Yes, it feels like a small era in American musical theatre has passed - two important, completely original stories, by unique and new voices succeeded when they should have failed are gone. For now. Won't it be our pleasure to see shows in the future that were influenced by them?


  4. Michael,

    I know/knew the entire time how you feel/felt. It doesn't need to be verbalized. The fact that you knew how much it would mean to me and gave me this as a gift said it, too.

    And it is much easier to type this than it is to say face to face!



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