Tuesday, July 5, 2011

REVIEW: next to normal (National Tour)

A review of the next to normal National Tour at the Sunday matinee, July 3rd at the Eisenhower Theatre  at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.  Starring
Alice Ripley, Asa Somers, Emma Hunton, Curt Hansen, Preston Sadleir and Jeremy Kushnier. Directed by Michael Greif, musical staging by Sergio Trujillo. Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey. 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission.

Grade: A-

This weekend, I had the great fortune to travel down to Washington, DC and visit the Kennedy Center to see the National Tour of next to normal.  An enormous space, it is even more grand and elegant in person than you can see during the Kennedy Center Honors telecast.  The show is playing the smaller of the two main theatres, The Eisenhower.  The other, which you see on TV is The Opera House, where the National Tour of Wicked is currently playing.

As all of you who follow my blog know, I am a huge fan of next to normal, having seen it several times on Broadway, including performances with understudy Jessica Phillips, replacement cast lead Marin Mazzie, and, of course, Tony-winning actress Alice Ripley, who is repeating her work on the tour.  The show remains vibrant, edgy and continuously thrilling.  And yet, I have to admit a little something is missing this time around.

It couldn't be the staging, as Michael Greif and Sergio Trujillo have painstakingly recreated their complex, thought-provoking direction and musical staging, respectively.  And the entire design team has basically provided an exact replica of what appeared on the Booth Theatre stage in New York.  Kevin Adams' lighting is as amazing as ever.  And yet, it could be, that the cast, now comfortable in their roles, have taken some liberties in timing, and some small staging changes that, little by little, add up to just enough make this touring version just a bit less in the impact department than its Broadway parent. 

Curt Hanson (left); Hanson (top), Asa Somers and Alice Ripley (bottom)

More likely, the problem lies in the casting of the pivotal role of Gabe, played by Curt Hansen, who certainly looks the part as played thus far - the ideal all-American boy look, part boy next door, part Abercrombie and Fitch model.  And he sings loud and forcefully.  Yet, somehow, both things work against him.  He also has this overtly sexual bearing about him that takes away the all-American boy trait and adds the naughtiness of a Playgirl model.  His voice, one of the first things you hear, is at odds with his looks - he speaks like a young boy and sings with a slightly nasally, pinch quality.  Think Britney Spears as a male in every way: wholesome at first glance, but uncomfortably dirty the more he does.  His "I'm Alive" was good, not great, and his "There's a World" is eerie and seductive, but the relationship that the dance between Gabe and Diana reveals here has taken on an excessively sexual tone.  Don't get me wrong, I understand that there has always been an undercurrent of that sort of tension, but Mr. Hansen forces the issue.

"My Psychopharmacologist and I"

Preston Sadleir and Emma Hunton

On the other hand, the rest of the cast has done a marvelous job gelling as a family, troubled and dysfunctional as it is.  And it is really fun to see familiar characters in the hands of new actors, especially when given the opportunity to make the parts their own.  In the dual roles of Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden, Jeremy Kushnier effectively portrays men who want to help, and in the case of the latter character, he fairly exudes the "rock star" confidence he is famous for, as well as a heartening edge as you watch him struggle to really help his patient.  Preston Sadleir is an extremely good looking young man with a strong voice of extraordinary range in the role of Henry.  At first glance, one doesn't expect such a presence to be convincing as an awkward, geeky fellow, and yet he succeeds marvelously.  Wide-eyed and in awe of his love-at-first-sight for Natalie, watching him navigate the tricky path of high school romance AND brave the treacherous waters of all that comes with being associated with the Goodman family, is one of the more satisfying elements of this production.  His underlying strength makes his sticking by Natalie all the more believable and satisfying.

Emma Hunton and Alice Ripley

Emma Hunton's take on the role of Natalie supports both Sadleir's take on Henry and Diana's initial take on her daughter, "a freak."  A tense and intense portrayal that goes far beyond teen angst, Hunton imbues Natalie with a complex mixture of world-weariness, biting sarcasm, and a disarming vulnerability.  Her voice is crystal clear, powerful, and strong, and her delivery of "Superboy and the Invisible Girl" reveals a deep anger and even deeper pain.  Needless to say, it gets one of the strongest hands of the evening.  She is also an amazing scene partner for Ms. Ripley, during the "next to normal" scene, where she bravely confronts her long-absent mother, vowing not to shed another tear in the matter, and finally cracks, letting the sobs spill forth during a gratifying coming together of mother and daughter.  In short, Miss Hunton departs the furthest from her Broadway predecessors, and the pay-off is terrific.

Asa Somers and Curt Hanson

The higher register of his voice sometimes makes Asa Somers' portrayal of beleaguered husband, Dan, come across as younger than you might expect.  But his turmoil, angst and heartbreak are palpable.  Some of that might not be totally his doing as he occasionally takes the higher part when harmonizing with Ms. Ripley.  And the final scenes where Dan copes with the departure of his wife are his strongest, particularly in the scene where he confronts Gabe (this scene is also Mr. Hansen's strongest, a glimpse at what might have made his performance much stronger).

Alice Ripley with Curt Hanson (top);
Hanson, Ripley and Somers (bottom)

Alice Ripley continues to deliver a truly brilliant, complex and heartbreaking performance as Diana.  Audiences across the country have had the thrill of seeing Broadway history first hand (and soon, Canada will join them).  As always, you can see the brilliance of her performance in not just the big things - powerfully delivered arguments, soul-searching epiphanies - but in the smaller details, too.  One needs only to watch the kaleidoscope of facial expressions that cross her face during "My Psychopharmacologist and I" or during the entire hypnosis sequence, including the riveting company number, "Catch Me I'm Falling" to see just how complete and in depth her performance remains.  She has found more humor in the role at the start of the show, and her interaction with her "new" children is very interesting to watch.  She has adjusted to each wonderfully, though I think there might be some benefit to her toning down the sexual sparks between mother and idealized phantom son.  Unfortunately, her voice is shot, reduced to a deepened grumble in spots and a squeaking upper register.  Much of it, she plays off as part character quirk - especially some flat and altogether missed notes - and other times as a result of high emotional moments.  The rest of the time she sounds like she's fighting a cold, and maybe she is.  What you hear onstage is not the same as the cast recording.  But even having said that, she is still giving an absolutely brilliant performance.  I remain in awe of her talent, commitment, and amazing bravery.

The little things may add up to an ever so slightly diminished return in this version.  Even so, next to normal is still, and by far, the most exhilarating and best American musical in years.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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