Thursday, April 14, 2011

NEXT TO NORMAL • The Fox

So, I'm not even sure where to begin.

Those who know me are well aware of the fact that I fell in love with this musical a couple of years ago when I saw it in NYC (twice), and I was euphoric when I found out that it would be included in this year's Fox Theatre season.  Not only could my friends finally see what all the fuss was about, but they would get to see it with my girlfriend, I mean, the 2009 Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award winner (winning for this very role), Alice Ripley.

I was very curious to see the reaction from St. Louis audiences to this show.  I distinctly remember last March when AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY was here and proved too much for some to handle, with many unfortunate walk-outs at intermission.  Although there is a good amount of humor in NEXT TO NORMAL, like AUGUST…, this show deals with some major shit -- bipolar disorder, pharmaceutical "treatments", grief, suicidal impulses -- and it does so with a relentless honesty.  Really grabs you by the throat.  But unlike AUGUST…, this is a musical -- a contemporary musical with its style drifting more towards SPRING AWAKENING rather than your Rodgers and Hammerstein type fare.  I didn't think I would like it initially because I knew there weren't going to be any french horns or anything, but those preconceptions were quickly forgotten once I was sucked in to this bold roller coaster ride of a show.  The New York Times called it not a feel-good musical, but a "feel-everything musical" when it debuted on Broadway in April of 2009.

Alice Ripley & Jeremy Kushnier
in the National Tour of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
As the show opens, we're introduced to a seemingly typical suburban family, but by the end of the first number, as Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley) manically lays out sandwiches for the family on the kitchen floor, we know that Mom has some issues.  During the course of the show, we discover (in revelatory spoonfuls) the cause of Diana Goodman's damage, and how her condition has in turn damaged the rest of her family.  There's her husband Dan (faithful, supportive and beautifully portrayed by Asa Somers), who feels helpless in trying to console her and nearing the end of his rope, their daughter Natalie (a funny, angry and amazing Emma Hunton), who feels invisible and afraid she may be destined follow in her mother's footsteps, and their son Gabe, ally and enemy to his mother, played with the magnetic hovering presence of Curt Hansen.  We're also exposed to the variety of medical treatments Diana is subjected to -- everything from an array of pharmaceuticals to electroconvulsive therapy -- administered by Dr. Madden and Dr. Fine, both played by Jeremy Kushnier.  In the midst of all this, there's this boy Natalie kinda likes -- Henry, played by an incredibly likable Preston Sadleir.  They connect at a time when Natalie's mom is perhaps at her lowest point, and seeing how Natalie deals with the pressure of living within this fractured family -- easing her pain with her own homemade cocktails of pharmaceuticals snagged from her mom's purse -- is another branch of this story that invests you in the outcome.

The National Touring Company of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
The industrial multi-tiered set (Mark Wendland) beautifully fills the Fox stage.  Incorporated images of its pointillist house outlines, and sometimes, eyes, along with lighting by Kevin Adams that I loved -- accentuating every heartbeat of this show, is just spare enough to highlight the main attraction -- the action and the actors.  Also featuring a powerful rock-opera score with music by Tom Kitt, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and compelling direction by Michael Greif, this is a show that I'm reluctant to give too many specifics about.  You know, spoilers and all.  (If you don't care about spoilers, you can check out the Wikipedia article here).  Let's just say that as the details unfold about what has triggered Diana's pain, the gravity of it never wanes.

Alice Ripley in the
National Tour of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Okay -- can I just talk about Alice Ripley for a minute?  Thanks.
I've NEVER seen anyone commit to a role the way she does.  The emotion she's been able to bring to the surface for the past few years (including the show's earlier incarnation off-Broadway in 2008) never ceases to astound me.  Having originated the part, and deciding to tour with it, Diana Goodman is a woman Ripley has had to accommodate in her life for awhile now, and the demands of it are evident.  Particularly in the second act, which is basically sung-through.  There's a vulnerability in her face and a rawness in her voice that compels you to root for her success in exorcising her demons.  I mentioned that I love Alice Ripley, right?

Okay, now here's part two--
I saw it again the next night (yes, yes, I know.  Have we met?  You know I love this show, right?) and my bff and I were treated to the standbys for the roles of Diana (Pearl Sun) and Dan (Jason Watson).  I was a little worried initially, but all that nonsense went away the minute Ms. Sun opened her mouth.  She's got a wonderfully strong voice, and it was a pleasure to see another take on the role.  Mr. Watson was also a heart-breaking Dan with a beautiful voice.  These are a couple of demanding roles, and it's good to know that if you see a standby slip or two tucked into your playbill, the ride you take won't be any less intense.

Preston Sadlier & Emma Hunton
in the National Tour of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Here's the thing.  There aren't always neatly tied-up happy endings in theatre.  Get over it.  Put on your big boy pants and see this musical.  It won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for crying out loud, and the opportunity to experience the emotions this cast delivers is something not to be missed.

Okay, I have to also mention that that first night there was this guy in suspenders and a striped "Garanimals" polo shirt behind me who apparently doesn't really get the "inside voice" vs. "outside voice" thing.  *rolls eyes*  Yeah dude -- we saw that too.  Shut up.  I'm in the middle of a moment here…


NEXT TO NORMAL

Alice Ripley & Curt Hansen
in the National Tour of Next to Normal.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Book/lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Michael Greif
Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
through April 24 | tickets: $22 - $64
Performances Tuesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturday 2 & 8pm, Sunday 2pm, Sun, April 17 at 7:30pm, Thursday, April 21 at 1pm

Cast:
Alice Ripley (Diana), Asa Somers (Dan), Curt Hansen (Gabe), Emma Hunton (Natalie), Preston Sadleir (Henry) and Jeremy Kushnier (Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine).

Creative:
Choreography by Sergio Trujillo; scenic design by Mark Wendland; costume design by Jeff Mahshie; lighting design by Kevin Adams; sound design by Brian Ronan; orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Tom Kitt; vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo; stage manager, Rachel Zack.

NEXT TO NORMAL Band:
Conductor/piano, Bryan Perri; assistant conductor, Rick Bertone; guitars, Craig Magnano; bass, Michael Pearce; drums/percussion, Shannon Ford.

5 comments:

  1. Like you, I love this show! I saw it on Broadway, not knowing a thing about it before I walked in the door. What a profound effect that show had on me!!! I was so excited to see it in St. Louis...I had GREAT seats, (where I was again so close to see the cast spit), but was disappointed in Alice's performance. Her voice was very forced, and flat. She painfully made it through the show. I felt so bad for her!! I hope she gives her understudy (whom I have heard is great) stage time, and lets herself take a break. Her voice needs it.

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  2. I am gratified to see from the above comment that I was not the only one who was disappointed in Alice Ripley's performance. Other than that the show was just as amazing as I had thought it would be. And in defense of those of us who left "Osage" early (I left after the second intermission) it was VERY long - and I never really could muster up any feelings one way or the other for any of the characters.

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  3. Lisa, nothing can beat great seats at the Fox! Alice has taken some knocks on this tour, but it's understandable I hate to say. It's a vocally demanding role, no doubt, but maybe some time off would be a good thing. And don't worry, I suspect her standby is getting plenty of stage time.

    And just to be clear Anonymous - my issue with people who left OSAGE early wasn't about the length of the show. It was really long! It had to do with the fact that like N2N, the subject matter was difficult for some, and that there was a disappointment in the fact that it wasn't a show filled with sunshine and unicorns. I sympathize with that, and I understand that folks have the right to walk out of anything they want, for any reason, but the fact that some aren't willing to stay on for the whole ride kind of annoys me sometimes, that's all.

    Thank you both for your comments!

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  4. OK. My hubby & I saw this last night. We were both confused as to why you're so in love with Alice. I'll give her kudos for the acting. But half way through the first act I found myself wanting to stand up and scream, "WHAT FUCKING KEY IS SHE SINGING IN?!" Sadly, I have to vehemently agree with the above comment about her forced tones. She was difficult to understand much of the time, and the context and supporting cast carried me through just well enough to actually love this show. I saw her Tony Award performance, and was a bit shocked and disappointed in her touring performance. After reading your blog I'm wishing I'd seen Ms. Sun. I'm just sayin'.

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  5. Hey Eric!

    I've loved Alice ever since I saw N2N in New York, and I love her passion for this role, but yeah, she needs some significant vocal rest, and maybe a reduced performance schedule. It's a really demanding role for a singing actor (as opposed to an acting singer with perhaps more vocal training), and according to a friend who saw her opening night in St. Louis, she's just not singing properly -- not supporting her instrument -- and as a result, this role is shredding her voice. It's a shame really, cause she goes balls out every time she's on, but I'm afraid she may be hurting her reputation on this tour. Hopefully at the end of July when this tour is over, she'll take some time off.

    Thanks for the comment Eric!

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