Next to Normal, the wonderfully emotional Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning musical, recently welcomed an almost entirely new Goodman family. On July 18, Alice Ripley, Brian d’Arcy James and Jennifer Damiano played their final performance as Diana, Dan and Natalie. (d’Arcy James was not a member of the original Broadway cast, but he did originate the role of Dan off-Broadway at Second Stage.) The next night, Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley and Meghann Fahy assumed the roles. (Mazzie and Danieley are married in real life; this is the first time they’ve worked together on Broadway, though they’ve worked together in other venues before.) This Saturday, I headed to the Booth; as it turned out, an understudy, Brian Crum, was playing the role of Gabe, the Goodmans’ son, so as I watched, I got the chance to meet a totally new Normal family.
I found myself in an interesting position because I’ve now seen the amazing show in two different iterations with, essentially, three different casts. (I’ve actually seen four Dans, three Gabes, two Dianas, Natalies and Doctors and one Henry. Oh, sweet Henry - what a good boyfriend!) Just like when I saw Hair with the replacement cast, I had to prep myself going in and kept telling myself that different didn’t mean bad. And this cast was very good - certainly Mazzie’s and Danieley’s talents can’t be denied, and original Broadway cast members Louis Hobson and Adam Chanler-Berat are still fantastic in their roles. But the new cast members were different and some of the differences didn’t work for me.
Danieley was the most effective, in my opinion. His voice sounds more like Brian d’Arcy James’s than J. Robert Spencer’s (Spencer originated the role of Dan on Broadway) and yet he was able to clearly make the role his own. I thought he did a very nice job of creating a family - I liked the way he played with Natalie during lighter moments. As Natalie, Meghann Fahy was good, if very reminiscent of Damiano. Fahy sounds and looks a lot like Damiano so it was almost as if there was no change. She did manage to play certain moments differently than Damiano, which was good because as great as Damiano was in the role, when an actor takes over the role, I don’t want to see a carbon copy.
As Gabe, Brian Crum was the least effective. When I first saw Next to Normal at Second Stage Theatre almost three years ago, I fell in love with Aaron Tveit as a performer. I thought he was absolutely perfect in the role - his talent is undeniable; he was commanding, charismatic, magnetic and electric; I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. His final performance as Gabe on Broadway was emotional, to say the least, and when I took my mother to see the show this past February it was the first time I was seeing a new Gabe. Much to my pleasant surprise, Kyle Dean Massey was also great in the role. He was different from Aaron; Kyle Dean’s dark and thick eyebrows made Gabe look more sinister which was an interesting twist. But Kyle Dean’s talent is also not to be denied and he is a great replacement. Brian Crum doesn’t quite live up to the challenge. (Of course, he is an understudy, not a permanent replacement.) Crum is good - serviceable, really - but he leaves much to be desired. Crum lacks the physical stature to be commanding and lacks stage presence. I don’t believe he can be sinister. I could take my eyes off of him, making him a little forgettable in such a great role. This is not to say he’s not talented - he certainly has a good voice and plays the moments well, but he just doesn’t have that “it” factor to do the role justice.
And finally, Marin Mazzie. Mazzie has the unenviable and unforgiving task of taking over for Alice Ripley in her Tony-winning performance. Mazzie is very talented and does great work here (her Diana is sadder and more depressed than Ripley’s more manic Diana), but she’s no Alice Ripley. Ripley was nothing if not present in the role. I saw her Diana seven times and it was never the same performance. With Mazzie, it felt like she had decided, “Okay, this is the how this moment is to be played so that’s how i”ll play it.” If I go back to see her again tonight, I’ll see the exact same performance. It’s a good performance, even if I didn’t agree with or understand some of her choices, but it’s static.
Remember when Glee covered U2’s “One” on the “Laryngitis” episode? Aside from the fact that they grossly appropriated an incredible song for an after school special, there was something about their version that didn’t quite work. Lea Michele sang lead and she has a great voice. However, there is something about Bono’s unfinished, flawed voice that makes U2’s “One” authentic and powerful. That’s how I feel about Mazzie’s voice compared to Ripley’s.
Mazzie has a fantastic polished, Broadway voice whereas Ripley’s voice is unfinished and flawed, like Bono’s. The lack of polish in Ripley’s voice really works for Diana because Diana is unfinished and flawed. With Mazzie’s polished voice, Diana seemed maybe a little normal instead of next to it. When her voice needed to break - in order to convey something breaking in Diana - Mazzie would go into a character voice, which didn’t convey emotion.
All that being said, the show still holds up. Basically because Tom Kitt’s a genius. But seriously, folks, Kitt and writing partner Brian Yorkey created a solid show. They spent ten years nurturing and molding this beautiful original musical and their efforts have paid off in spades. It’s a testament to their talent that even with just good performances - and not great ones - the show is still top notch and better than most of the fluff and schlock that’s out there. And I should note once again that I have something to which I can compare these new performances. My opinion is admittedly biased. Family friends recently came to see the show and they had never seen Ripley, d’Arcy James (or Spencer) or Damiano and they loved the show - couldn’t stop gushing. Because I have a means of comparison, I can make these criticisms. But the show is just as affecting as ever and absolutely still worth seeing. It’s always difficult to replace the cast of a successful show; the producers of Next to Normal took up the challenge with winning results.
(Note that in these pictures Kyle Dean Massey, not Brian Crum, appears as Gabe.)
Visit NexttoNormal.com for information about the show, to purchase tickets or to learn about the upcoming tour, starring Alice Ripley.