My long and tortuous history with the musical Next to Normal continues. When I was down in the city to see Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch in A Little Night Music (see my review below), I decided to make it the weekend of the replacement casts and take in real-life married couple Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley, who recently took over the leads in Next to Normal.
Regular readers will recall my strong reaction to Next to Normal in both its Off-Broadway (my review) and Broadway (my review) incarnations. I won't rehash my reservations here, but I will say that there was something about the production with Mazzie and Danieley in the leads that made the apparent message of the show more ambiguous, which for me is a good thing. Life is ambiguous, and art is more satisfying when it reflects that lack of certainty.
Perhaps it was the comparative subtlety of the performances, particularly that of Marin Mazzie, that made the message less blunt. (Alice Ripley is many things, but she's certainly not subtle.) But seeing Next to Normal with an almost entirely new cast provided the opportunity to evaluate the piece afresh.
The show started off a bit garbled and indistinct. Quite a few of the lines and lyrics were lost to poor diction and a general lack of focus, on everyone's part. But things quickly improved in that respect. Mazzie wasn't quite getting the laughs that Ripley got from the role, but Mazzie's Diana was more human and believable, and more heartbreaking as a result. Plus, Mazzie has a killer belt, and she doesn't share Ripley's pitch problems. Personally, I didn't witness any intonation issues with Ripley either time I saw her in the show, but that is a frequent criticism that I've heard leveled against her.
Again, Mazzie's Diana is a lot more realistic, and considerably less batshit, than Ripley's. Don't get me wrong: Ripley was terrific in the role. But Mazzie is effective in an entirely different way. Her moment in act 1 with the music box ("I Dreamed a Dance") was profoundly moving. And the look she gave her husband Dan at the end of act 1 as she was being wheeled off to her first ECT treatment was so incredibly haunting that I haven't been able to erase it from my mind. I may never forget the sheer terror on her face. It was one of the most stunning moments I've ever experienced in the theater.
As for Jason Danieley, he may need a bit more time to warm up to the role of Dan, Diana's husband. Danieley seemed a bit too casual in performance, playing at a level that was not commensurate with the stakes of the proceedings. He was never less than serviceable, but he didn't really start making an emotional impact until the climax of the show, at which point he acquitted himself nicely. Plus, whereas Mazzie's vocals meshed well with the pop/rock idiom of Tom Kitt's score, Danieley's legit style was a bit out of place.
Taking Aaron Tveit's place in the pivotal role of Gabe is Kyle Dean Massey, who also played the role while Tveit was in Seattle for the out-of-town tryout for Catch Me if You Can. Massey seems to have been cast based on how much he looks and sounds like Tveit, but he's certainly talented in his own right, and brings a number of individual touches to his portrayal. Meghann Fahey as Natalie was considerably less grating than Jennifer Damiano, who's off to star in the debacle-in-progress that is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Damiano irritated me to no end, although in retrospect in may have been that Damiano was more fully evincing the annoying female-teenager self-centered-ness and sarcasm. Whatever, Fahey was a lot less likely to set my teeth on edge.
So, Next to Normal definitely seems to be growing on me, particularly under the auspices of the new Broadway cast. After my strong negative reaction to the show in its initial run, it's a bit of surprise. Who knew I'd become such a fan, if only a reluctant one?