Jeremey Kushnier (left), Alice Ripley (center) and Asa Somers star in the national tour of Next to Normal at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Below: Tony Award-winner Ripley sings her plaintive aria, “I Miss the Mountains.”Photos by Craig Schwartz
When I saw Next to Normal on Broadway, I was of two minds. For much of the first act, I glowered in my seat, overwhelmed by the Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey score – too many lyrics, loud music of the pop-rock-showtune mega-mix variety and super-slick storytelling and direction by Michael Greif.
But somewhere in Act 2, I got completely caught up in the story of Diana, a bipolar woman whose illness has dominated and in some ways warped her husband, Dan, and their 16-year-old daughter, Natalie. From the song “Maybe (Next to Normal),” a duet for mother and daughter, to the end of the show, I was in tears.
It was the story more than the staging that got to me, and it wasn’t so much the music but the characters and the choices they make that was ultimately so moving.
So I left with the question: why does this show have to be a musical? The Pulitzer committee didn’t seem to mind when they handed out awards.
Now having seen the show a second time courtesy of the national tour at the Curran Theatre, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, I’m wondering less about the music and more about the way the story is over-told.
Mark Wendland’s three-level set is essentially a construction site. It’s a metal framework full of rock concert lights (designed by Kevin Adams) and sliding panels that give the impression of a “normal” suburban household. We learn that Diana and Dan were both architecture students, which may also explain the construction site.
The three levels, shallow though they may be, certainly allows Greif to move his cast around in dynamic ways. Curt Hansen, who plays the enigmatic and somewhat menacing Gabe, leaps from level to level like a gymnast going for the gold. The tiers can also be read as levels of mental stability. The ground floor is the most grounded in reality. The middle level is dangerous purgatory where you can go either way. And the tippy top is “abandon sanity all ye who enter here.”
This is an intimate story told with only six actors (one of whom plays several parts). The band (under the direction of Bryan Perri) is larger by two players. Though there’s musical staging by Sergio Trujillo, it’s not a dance show. There’s razzle-dazzle, but there doesn’t really need to be.
The creative team seemed to fear that this small-scale story could be static, so they amped it up to glitzy Broadway levels, and the result is machine like and distancing.
That’s why Alice Ripley’s central performance as Diana is so extraordinary. She won a Tony for the role because she’s the aching human center of this machine. On tour, her performance is still brave in its vulnerability, though she is relying on vocal tricks to manipulate a somewhat ragged voice. She has several vocal ticks that warp certain vowel sounds, but her acting is impeccable. She’s funny and raw and (aside from her too-cute clothes and haircut) utterly believable as a woman losing control of herself.
I actually liked Asa Somers as Dan more than J. Robert Spencer on Broadway. Dan is a tricky role to pull off because he’s the “boring” one. He’s the rock on which the rest of the family leans. But he has his own issues, as we see in the revealing reprise of “I Am the One” toward the end of the show, a duet with the limber and strong-voiced Hansen.
Emma Hunton as Natalie reveals a gorgeous voice, and though her character’s descent from nose-to-the-grindstone good girl to pill-popping clubber is only sketched in at best, she makes a strong impression. There’s nice chemistry between Hunton and Preston Sadleir as nerdy stoner Henry, a stalwart teen whose heart she has, somewhat inexplicably, captured.
In the role of Diana’s doctors – a psychopharmacologist and psychiatrist who eventually prescribes ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) – Jeremy Kushnier gets to be a rock star and a member of the (perhaps evil) medical establishment. It’s nice to see Kushnier back on stage at the Curran, where he played Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys.
With such a sturdy cast executing the material, I come back to my dilemma: why do I fight this musical so strenuously before getting sucked into it? I appreciate that Yorkey and Kitt have created such a serious musical and are aiming for depth and emotion. But as much as I enjoy some of the songs in context – “I’m Alive,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” – the score never captured my imagination as much as it blasted my brain. Like a jolt of electricity.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Next to Normal continues through Feb. 20 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $33-$99. Call or visit www.shnsf.com
Curt Hansen plays Gabe in the Broadway national touring company of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. The tour stops at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre Jan. 25 through Feb. 20. Below: Hansen dances with Tony Award-winning Normal star Alice Ripley, who plays Diana, his mother. Photo by Craig Schwartz
When people talk about the musical Next to Normal, it’s inevitably about one of two things: how they related on a deep personal level to the story of a bi-polar mom and the affect her disorder has on her family or how astonished they were by Alice Ripley’s lead performance as the struggling mom.
Ripley is extraordinary – this is the role that won her the Tony Award – and the show can be amazingly powerful, but there’s more to this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics). When Normal pulls into San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series, audiences will see there are other complicated, multi-layered characters surrounding Ripley’s Diana. One of them is Gabe, her son.
On tour, this tricky role is played by Curt Hansen, who was part of the Broadway cast as the vacation swing. When he describes Gabe, he uses words like “average” and “all-American.” But as the show’s title suggests, nothing here is exactly normal. “Gabe fits into this little family, and the more normal people think he is, the more surprised they are by the things he reveals. Sometimes you feel like Gabe is a bad guy, but I feel like Diana loves him so much, and he loves her so much. Whatever happens, it comes from a place of love first.”
Gabe, you can safely say, is a teen with issues.
“I have moments on stage where I hope that I am part of something that’s in Diana, that I help convey what’s going on in her,” Hansen explains on the phone from a tour stop in Denver. “There’s nothing simple here. We see a bipolar mom, how she struggles and how her family contributes to that struggle or how they try and cope with it in their own ways.”
Gabe has two big numbers — “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” and the electrifying “I’m Alive” – in the challenging pop/rock Kitt-Yorkey score, so Hansen had to do more than just learn the songs. “They had to be in my body,” he says. “The songs are high and really vocally demanding. At first it’s all about technique and getting through it. Now is when it’s really fun because you live it. You enjoy what you’re singing. ‘I’m Alive’ is every musical theater kid’s dream to sing. It’s a really fun and amazing song, and I know, obviously, how lucky I am to get to do it.”
Unlike so many national tours, this one features its original Broadway star. Ripley’s star turn combines the best of in-the-moment dramatic acting and the best of contemporary musical theater. Her vibrancy on stage certainly isn’t lost on Hansen.
“It’s unreal what happens on stage every night,” he says. She is so responsive, and every show is different in a good way. I see new things every show. It blows my mind how committed she is to the character. She makes the environment on stage so alive. If you do something, you know she’ll be open to it. That’s what makes a great actor – they respond in different ways because they’re open and listening. It’s all the basic 101 stuff, but once the show starts, once the ride starts, it just gains momentum from first note to last. It’s a roller coaster every single night. I feel fortunate to be involved in a show that you can be so emotionally invested in and feel like you’re making a difference for the audience.”
Hansen, a Wisconsin native who now lives in New York with his girlfriend, caught the performing bug in a sixth grade choir class (a friend said it would be an easy A). He’s been singing since and now finds himself comforting crying moms at the stage door after Next to Normal performances. “This show really hits people. Moms definitely relate to it, but so do people who have been through tragedies and dealt with heavy stuff in their own families. When I saw the show in New York, I didn’t really have any personal ties to it, but it hit me. I was bawling my eyes out by the end. It’s one of those shows – you really take the experience for what it is.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Next to Normal runs Jan. 25 to Feb. 20 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $30. Call 888 SHN 1799 (888 746 1799) or visit http://shnsf.com/tickets/boxoffice
Curt Hansen has a beautiful voice that is put to great use in Next to Normal. Earlier this year, he performed at the NewMusicalTheatre.com launch concert and sang “Open Road” by Nick Blaemire from his musical Glory Days.
Live (well, the West Coast version of live, which is actually three hours NOT live, but hey, we’re on the West Coast) 63rd Annual Tony Awards blogging!
Please comment and join the conversation! Hit refresh for anything new. P.S. Comments will be shared (with your permission) in the main part of the post as they arrive.
Warning: there’s liable to be a lot of gushing ahead because I LOVE Dolly Parton, Neil Patrick Harris, Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, Next to Normal, Billy Elliotand Broadway itself. It’s party night because it’s Tony night.
To get things going, here’s a handsome photo of our host for the evening, Neil Patrick Harris, who, after watching him host “Saturday Night Live,” deserves his own variety show (btw, so does Justin Timberlake, who was also brilliant on “SNL”). NPH sings, dances, has impeccable comic timing and is just cool as hell. Can we please bring back the variety show (and not the way Rosie O’Donnell, bless her Broadway-lovin’ heart, did last fall — that was a disaster!)??? Tony Awards host Neil Patrick Harris (Photo by the Associated Press)
It’s showtime! Fantastic opening number with Billy Elliot and fantastic counterpoint between West Side Story’s “Tonight” and Guys & Dolls’“Luck Be a Lady.”
Not entirely sure Stockard Channing (who looks AMAZING) should have been opposite the very young and very alive Aaron Tveit.
Shrek the Musical’s “Let Your Freak Flag Fly” was cute, but it looks like Disney gone haywire.
If only Dolly Parton were actually IN 9 to 5, I’d be there every night. Still, big love to Alison Janney, Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty, who actually are in the show.
Love Liza, but the vocals? Not so much.
The Hair revival definitely lets the sun shine in.
I’m so happy to see Dolly Parton on a Broadway stage. Don’t think she’ll be going home with any trophies, so let’s get her photo up here. Photo by Associated Press
Jane Fonda showing some major cleveage in a black gown. She presented the best performance by a featured actor in a play to Roger Robinson in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. That’s the play the Obamas saw last weekend. Photo by Associated press
The Shrek number: Trying too hard to blend Beauty and the Beast with Spamalot.
Says commenter “bracelets”: “The guy clapping after the SHREK number sums it up exactly.”
Tracy writes of the opening number: “Bret Michaels on the Tony’s? That’s a surprise. He called me when I was 21. I sent him fan mail and a poem. That crush is long over.”
James Gandolfini says he and Shrek are no relation. Fuggedaboutit. He and Jeff Daniels presented the best featured actress in a musical award to Angela Lansbury!!! This is her fifth Tony. God love her. She is the essence of gratitude and happiness and joy! Photo by Associated Press
Ah, a Mamma Mia moment — something for the viewers in the great Midwest.
Pre-broadcast award: Lee Hall best book of a musical for Billy Elliot. Now best score: winners Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey for Next to Normal. Well deserved. Fantastic cast album. How do you beat Elton John and Dolly Parton? Well, you write a kick-ass score. Kitt won for best orchestrations as well. It’s so incredibly rude to cut people off mid-speech. Sorry, guys.
West Side Story number: “Dance” at the Gym, “Tonight.” Could Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione be any more adorable? And she almost didn’t hit that high note.
Could I look that good if I sleep with Tim Robbins? Kidding. All due respect to the wondrous Susan Sarandon. She gave the best director of a play award to Matthew Warchus for God of Carnage (he was also nominated for the trilogy The Norman Conquests).
Commenter Ms. Small, commenting on the West Side Story number says: “Josefina almost didn’t hit that high note because Matt Cavenaugh is de-LISH!mmmmm….” Um – that is probably true.
Sarandon also handed the best director of a musical award to Stephen Daldry of Billy Elliot — he also directed the movie on which the musical is based. Photo by Associated Press
Journey on the Tonys! I never stopped believin’ (neither did Liza Minnelli, all evidence to the contrary). Rock of Ages looks like a blast. And has anyone noticed that Journey, and specifically “Don’t Stop Believin'” has become super hot? (best use of the song on TV’s “Glee”) Photo by Associated Press
Commenter Trixie says: “I could use a glitter gun and some ginormous angel wings.” Honey, they’re in the mail.
Commenter Mike says: “Rock of Ages looks like the Hair of the 80’s. I want to SEE that.”
Edie Falco (stunning) presents the Tony for special event to Liza Minnelli and her boys for Liza’s at the Palace. Sorry, Will Ferrell. Thank God Slava’s Snow Show didn’t win. Boy did I hate that show on tour. What can you say about Liza except maybe: baby, take a breath. A really long breath. Photo by Associated Press
God of Carnage clip — not a great selling point (and what’s with that cracked mud artwork in the background?). Guys and Dollsnumber — saved by a hand mic. The guy in charge of sound tonight ought to look for work in the wonderful world of fast food.
Commenter Dyan says: “Some of these shows look like a big, fat, hot mess.”
We’re on a hot mess trend here. Ms. Small says: “Ok…Liza is just a hot mess…I’m sorry. `a great America treasure’ ok, Ok..OK…OKAY!!!…fine…hot mess. BUT, great hold tactic! Whenever I’m being played off the stage I’m totally pulling the `Wait, not yet! I have to thank my crazy-famous parents’ card!!!”
Creative arts Tonys (presented pre-broadcast): Regional theater Tony to Signature Theatre of Arlington, Va. Tie for orchestrations, Billy Elliot and Next to Normal. Blah blah blah, www.americantheatrewing.org.
Ghost of Broadway yet to come: John Stamos in Bye Bye Birdie. Could Bob Saget be far behind?
Gregory Jbara wins best featured actor in a musical for his role as Billy Elliot’s dad in Shrek — kidding — in Billy Elliot. He dragged his wife, Julie, up on stage with him. Really sweet speech.
And best featured actress in a musical goes to Karen Olivo as Anita in West Side Story. Her first Tony Award. Her advice: surround yourself with people who love you. Photo by Associated Press
Brilliant idea to have Carrie Fisher introduce Next to Normal: bipolar lady, meet bipolar musical. I know how brilliant this show is on disc — not sure it’s really coming across on the tube. OK. Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer and Aaron Tveit pulled it off. Electrifying.
Jessica Lange — a long way from Big Edie in HBO’s Grey Gardens — she makes reading glasses gorgeous and classy. She handed Geoffrey Rush his award for best actor in a play for his performance in Ionesco’s Exit the King. This is the Oscar winner’s first Tony. Classy Aussie. Photo by Associated Press
Bebe Neuwirth’s tribute to Natasha Richardson was affecting. Sorry they chose “Memory” as the underscore. Broadway Inspriational Voices’ “What I Did for Love” was lovely as we remembered Estelle Getty, Dale Waserman, Edie Adams, Bruce Adler, Horton Foote, James Whitmore, Sydney Chaplin, Clive Barnes, Marilyn Cooper, Tom O’Horgan, Bea Arthur, Ron Silver, Robert Prosky, Robert Anderson, Lee Solters, Pat Hingle, Anna Manahan, Sam Cohn, George Furth, Eartha Kitt, Hugh Leonard, Rodger MacFarlane, William Gibson, Tharon Musser, Paul Sills, Lawrence Miller and Paul Newman.
Commenter Ms. Small: “not to be vulgar during a sensitive time….the `in memoriam’ section…but you know someone thought about it being appropriate to have the vampire-hued Bebe Neuwirth introduce the dead people. right? very nicely done segment.” P.S. Ms. Neuwirth will be playing Morticia in the upcoming Addams Family musical.
Frank Langella, in whom awards season brings out the best, chided nominators for missing his brilliance in A Man for All Seasons last season. On with business: best actress in a play goes to Marcia Gay Harden for God of Carnage. I’m a little sad Jane Fonda didn’t win because I wanted to hear her speech. Whoops — in the intros they mixed up Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter. Shame, Tonys! Photo by Associated Press
Sir Elton introduces Billy Elliot, the show for which he wrote a wonderful score that, for the most part, doesn’t sound remotely like Elton John. Billy’s angry dance amid a riot is pretty phenomenal. Photo by Associated Press
Why oh why are we wasting precious prime time on Legally Blonde the Musical? Tours should get their own show — this is all about Broadway.
Harvey Fierstein, his clarion voice a thing of beauty, presents the best revival of a play award to The Norman Conquests, which is actually three plays. Delighted to see Jessica Hynes in the crowd up on stage accepting the award. She was in one of my favorite TV shows, the British series “Spaced.”
And best play goes to Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. Not really much of a surprise there. Why does everyone associated with this play seem so downbeat? Photo by Associated Press
Commenter LY has a fashion note: “As my roommate put it, Marcia Gay Harden looks like an asparagus.”
Time for the tribute to Jerry Herman, a worthy and deserving candidate. He’s a true American treasure. Lots of good footage from the terrific documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman. Lifetime achievement indeed. Great shot of a tearful Harvey Fierstein. “It just doesn’t get any better than this, does it?” the 77-year-old Herman said to the audience in mid-standing ovation. “The thing I want you to know is I will hold this moment fast because the best of times is now, is now, is now, is definitely now.” Photo by Associated Press
Anne Hathaway (scrumptious) should bolt from the Central Park production of Twelfth Night and join the cast of Hair. She’d probably have more fun. The well-heeled audience probably didn’t expect to have cast members’ crotches in their faces tonight. Lucky them.
Oh, look! It’s Kristin Chenoweth and the girls! They’re all up and out to present the best revival of a musical to Hair. Yay Oskar Eustis (artistic director of the Public Theater) — “Equality now!” Photo by Associated Press
Commenter Tracy says: “That hair number was kind of scary. I wouldn’t want Fringe Guy gyrating on my armrests.”
Commenter bracelets says: “Thanks, Oskar!”
David Hyde Pierce comes out to present leading actress in a musical. Oh hooray! It’s Alice Ripley from Next to Normal. Wow. She is fierce. And wonderful. And incredibly talented. Photo by Associated Press
Audra McDonald presents leading actor in a musical to the trio of Billys from Billy Elliot. Tony history is made as three actors win a single award. Completely adorable. David Alvarez, Kiril Kulish and Trent Kowalik. Photo by Associated Press
Ms. Small says of the winning Billys: “1. Precious! 2. Poised! and 3. Perfect!! Love those boys…”
Five Frankie Vallis makes this gratuitous tour moment worthwhile!
A final thought from commenter Tracy: “Sweet surrender! I want to see Jersey Boys again and again and again and again.”
And we’re coming to the finish line. Here’s Liza. Best musical goes to — no surprise here — Billy Elliot. Great to see all those kids on stage — Broadway needs young people. Photo by Associated Press
And that’s all, folks! A highly enjoyable evening. Neil Patrick Harris did a wonderful job (again, someone please get this man his own variety show!!!). At last they gave him a song! Apparently Angela Lansbury hooked up with Poison backstage. Great lyric about performing on your knees only working for Golden Globes.
In spite of the state of the world, Broadway looks to be in good shape — at least that’s how it seemed on TV.
A final thought from commenter Mike: “OMG. Five Frankie Vallis, Elton John, Dolly Parton and a cast of literally thousands. I have never seen an even comparable performance. Well, maybe Jersey Boys. But what a production! That was fantastic. I’m totally glad I got culture.”
Thanks to my commenters for making this evening so enjoyable for me. Now let’s all go see a Broadway show!