On this trip to New York, now so near its end, I have seen two shows. One was the off-Broadway Coraline, a musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's eerie, unsettling children's novella. The second, tonight, was Broadway's Next to Normal.
I have many thoughts on both shows, but only a few I want to put into writing at the moment. Coraline was enjoyable, and Stephin Merritt's music was suitably otherworldly, but emotional connection was largely absent. I think that was intentional, as the entire production aimed at alienation and displacement, but it left me feeling a bit empty afterward. Luckily a confection that appeared to be a Reese's pieces tart (who knew?), which I discovered at a nearby bakery, took care of that emptiness.
Next to Normal was fucking brilliant. Just the best experience I've had on Broadway since...Avenue Q? Probably better than that. This may not come as a shock to anyone, but I cry at a lot of plays, movies, whatever. For this one, I was crying from the first scene through to intermission, and for most of the second act as well. The emotion was right there, but not cheesily overstated. The singing was excellent, particularly from Jennifer Damiano as Natalie and Kyle Dean Massey, replacing Aaron Tveit as Gabe. Damiano, by the way, is also an amazing piano mime--she faked a Mozart sonata while singing and did it well enough that even from my bird's eye view (in the very last row) of her fingers, I believed her. Massey has both the vocal chops and the--sigh--gorgeous face and body to replace Tveit. Alice Ripley (Diana), the Tony-winning star, was a fantastic actress, but her voice had a couple of distracting issues, one being that she tended to go flat at the ends of a whole lot of her lines. The other was a sort of sultry darkness to her tone that didn't really suit her character at all, but probably will get her tons of other roles after this, so whatever. Michael Berry, stepping in for J. Robert Spencer, had excellent stage presence and a great voice that seemed just a hair out of its register as Dan, losing some of the lower notes in the hubbub. Adam Chanler-Berat (Henry) and Louis Hobson (two self-righteous doctors), though they had less to do, did it quite well. If I were Natalie, I'd totally smoke up with Chanler-Berat and his adorable homemade apple-bong.
The show is full of surprises, and I won't give anything away, but I will say that Natalie is as much the star of the show as Diana, in my view. Maybe that was just Damiano's performance, which really demands more recognition than I've seen in any of the press, or maybe it was my musicologist's bias toward the better musician, or even more likely maybe it was me identifying with the children more than the parents in the story, but she seemed right at the center of it all.
I haven't felt this good about a new musical on Broadway in ages. And by "good," I don't mean amused or pleased. I mean, rather, torn up inside in a way that seems emotionally valid.
Now, to end on a lighter note, I am reading about the almost unbearably wonderful concept of Rowan Atkinson as Fagin in Oliver! Ben Brantley is a total ass in this article, as he often is, but at least he makes me aware of (and thereby allows me to fantasize about) shows in London out on which I would otherwise totally miss.