Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion about replacement casts, but I must confess, up until about five minutes ago, you couldn’t have asked me to care about it. Honestly. As a kid growing up on Long Island, when we made trips into the city to see a show, every actor who set foot on the stage seemed like a star to me. Like the biggest star I’d ever set eyes on. It made no difference to me whether or not they were the original star of the show.
But as my access to the theater has increased over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of watching shows evolve over time. I’ve become familiar with the phenomenon of replacement casts, and what they can mean to a theater fan. And while I’ve had some pretty depressing recent experiences with the replacement cast—in March, Hair’s new cast failed to live up to the revival cast I’d loved so much—I’ve also had some pretty awesome experiences, too.
Last month, on a random free night when no one else wanted to do anything, I took myself on a little solo theater date. There was a new cast at Next to Normal and it involved Marin Mazzie—OMG!—and her very dashing real-life husband Jason Danieley. Clearly, I needed to see this.
Still, I entered the theater with trepidation. To me, Next to Normal is more than just a show. It is an experience and when performed properly it has transformative power. Next to Normal can make you forget you are in a theater, observing, and turn you into another family member there at that table, powerless, watching it all fall apart around you and in you.
So when a full 50% of the six person cast changes suddenly, there is a real risk that the material could suffer. Greatly. I was nervous.
After the show, I lay in bed and thought about ways to review it. Should I compare performances directly? Flat out state whom I preferred when it came to Ripley/Mazzie, Spencer/Danieley and Damiano/Fahy? Even just thinking through those questions made me feel uneasy. It wasn’t that simple.
The show was different, with this different cast. (Shocking, I know.) Diana Goodman was Diana Goodman, still, but she carried herself differently, shared herself differently. It was the same with Dan and Natalie Goodman. Actors make choices. Not every single change felt right to me, but then, not every single choice felt right to me when I first saw the production with its original cast.
At the end of the day, the story is this: I cried again. Harder than I’d cried the last time I saw the show, and almost as hard as I did the first time I saw it. (To give you some perspective, at intermission the first time I saw the Next to Normal, a stage manager came out, leaned over my front row seat to hand me tissues and promised “It’s going to be okay.”) I was transported and transformed again. The experience of Next to Normal was intact, the sum of its parts far more important than some small thing here or there that was better or worse this time around.
Mazzie and Danieley and Fahy were wonderful. Kyle Dean Massey pulled some insane high B out of his chest at the end of “I’m Alive” that made me gasp aloud. Louis Hobson and Adam Chanler-Berat were as perfect as ever. All in all, Next to Normal survived the transition. I credit the cast, of course. What they brought to the stage made the show as emotional an experience as ever. But maybe it’s bigger than that, too. Maybe it was never about better or worse with this piece of theater, maybe it’s about how Next to Normal resonates with you. And how, when performed with passion and love (and some of Broadway’s finest) it’s almost guaranteed to knock you sideways.