Theatre Review: “Next to Normal” @ Curran Theatre (San Francisco), 1/26/11

Next to Normal at the Curran Theatre is an absolute triumph!

This was the sixth time I’ve seen Next to Normal. I first saw the production right after it transferred from Off-Broadway at the Booth Theatre, while it was still in previews. I didn’t know anything about the production and I was absolutely blown away by the show. Ever since then, Next to Normal has been one of my favorite musicals of this decade. Its raw, emotional story about mental illness is simply heartbreaking and hopeful all at the same time. Since that night, every time I’m in New York I try to fit Next to Normal into my schedule. I’ve seen most of the Broadway understudies (though I never did get to see Brian D’Arcy James) and most recently I saw the replacement cast featuring Marin Mazzie and her husband, Jason Danieley, respectively, as Diana and Dan Goodman. Every time I’ve loved it but I never expected that the touring production of Next to Normal would have this much emotional punch.

It ripped open my heart all over again.

Opening night in San Francisco felt like I was seeing a totally new production of Next to Normal and yet everything was the same. The lights, set, and music were all the same. There was no expense spared in regards to the technical area, but the adjusted sound design created almost a new show for me. I heard new harmonies, different characters were highlighted in group songs, and the focus just wasn’t on Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley). Asa Somers, who plays Ripley’s onstage husband, Dan, held his own remarkably against the powerhouse, Tony-winning performance by Ripley. Somers’ vocals were incredible — some of the best vocals I have ever heard on a Broadway stage and they blended perfectly with his son’s, Gabe (Curt Hansen), vocals. Case in point: “I Am the One (Reprise)” literally took my breath away. Somer’s performance added an intensity to Dan that I’ve never seen before.

And then there’s Emma Hunton who plays the jaded, sarcastic daughter, Natalie. Her crystalline vocals never stopped being impressive. Her rendition of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” was spot-on and the audience loved it. I had my doubts that anyone could top Jennifer Diamano’s Tony-nominated performance, but Hunton held her own. She added more sarcasm to her role and was more extroverted in her feelings – less emotionally manipulative and more present, overall. All of this emotion just kept growing until Natalie and her mother, Diana, finally have a heart-to-heart in the song, “Maybe (Next to Normal)”. My heart broke as they sang this song. Hunton raised the stakes in a way that created a beautiful arc to Natalie’s character.

Henry (Preston Sadleir), Natalie’s boyfriend, also rounded out the fiercely talented cast. I’ve always seen the original Henry, Adam Chanler-Berat, play the role so it was great to see a slightly different take on Henry. Sadleir did a hellavu job with the role and complemented Hunton’s intensity with his calm/easy-going personality. Just as I saw the deeper parallels to Diana and Natalie’s journey, I saw more parallels to Dan and Henry’s emotional discovery and subsequent loss. Even Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine (Jeremy Kushnier) felt more “present”. His genuine rock-star persona got a lot of laughs at the beginning of Act 1 and the audience was eating it up!

The incredibly talented director, Michael Greif, created a deeper arc with all of the characters in this production and really pushed them to find an even greater depth to the piece. No longer was Alice Ripley holding the show together by her overwhelming intensity — everyone complemented her intensity by taking an even bigger risk emotionally. At points, Ripley struggles vocally to get every note out but you don’t care because her dramatic intentions are so intensely motivated. There’s never a second on stage when you don’t believe that she’s not actually struggling with bi-polarism/schizophrenia. Her Tony-winning performance should not be missed. I can’t stress that enough.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote, “No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.” It’s still true in every way. This Pulitzer Prize winning musical should be seen by everyone.

It’s rare to have a touring production be just as exciting as the Broadway production. I didn’t think the tour of Next to Normal could do it, but they passed expectations by a mile. Do not miss this production of Next to Normal.

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4 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Next to Normal” @ Curran Theatre (San Francisco), 1/26/11

  1. As I put on Twitter last night, I absolutely LOVED the performance at the Curran. I saw the Broadway production in June 2009, without much preconceived notion (other than having enjoyed the OBCR). It broke my heart then, and it did again last night. I was in tears 3 songs before intermission, and alternated between tears and my gut being ripped out during the 2nd act – totally lost it during “Light”. This performance brought some things going on in my life full circle last night.

    We happened to be sitting 3rd row center, and had an amazing opportunity to really watch the emotion on the faces of the entire cast. Alice Ripley astounds me – I cannot imagine how difficult it is for her to do this show 8 times a week. Her voice is a bit rougher than last time I saw her but in a way it makes the performance that much more raw.

    I loved J. Robert Spencer’s Dan on Broadway, but I have to say…Asa Somers 100% broke my heart last night and might be stronger. His voice is so good, and he was incredibly effective at communicating the helplessness and pain that Dan experiences throughout the journey. I thought Emma Hunton’s Natalie was awesome in the sarcasm and her voice was great.

    The rest of the cast was just as good – I cannot speak highly enough of how good a job the casting team did for the tour. Alice isn’t standing on her own here, as you might expect for a touring production.

    I really did not expect to have the show affect me in the way that it did last night – I had goosebumps nearly the entire show, and was so sad when it was over. The women behind me were full-on sobbing at the end of the show, and people didn’t wait for the curtain calls to begin to give a standing ovation. I was also curious as to how the show would play in a little bigger house than the more intimate Booth Theater in NY. Maybe because we were so close, I didn’t notice any difference, but it seemed to come across well based on the audience reaction.

    I’m going to try my best to get back to SF and see it again before it heads off to the next location…I hope.

  2. Well, I saw the Feb 4 performance and I must say that I really enjoyed it… Except for one thing… Ripley’s vocals. When I saw it on broadway, Ripleys rough yet soulful voice really helped launch the character into your heart, but tonight she was struggling. She squeaked off the top and dropped out at the bottom. It was hard to hear what she was singing and it really ended up as a huge distraction from the great performance of the rest of the cast. Don’t get me wrong, She acted the hell out of the part as expected and her speaking voice was great, but I, unfortunately, somewhat agree with the person sitting behind me who said “I was hoping they would kill her off so I can enjoy the score.”. I think it’s time she took a rest from the show for a little bit… Or maybe she just had cold…?

  3. Saw the Feb 19th performance at the Curran and many folks had the same reaction as Doug: Ripley’s vocals became a distraction, especially in the second act. Otherwise an intimate, emotional roller coaster with stellar performances and great production.

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