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Broadway keeps its cool, Part 2

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Next to Normal (***1/2) -- Brian Yorkey has written an intensely probing and perceptive story about a family coping with loss, depression, physicians, and pharmaceuticals, delivered with lyrics as sharp and concise as Sondheim. These are wedded to a Tom Kitt score written on an intimate chamber scale Sondheim would be comfortable with. Yet there's a raucous, percussive edge to the music that would only come out of the master if he were committed to an asylum.

Or if Sondheim turned his attention to personal tragedy.

Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer star in the roles they originated back in April, parents Diana and Dan, while Kyle Dean Massey has already replaced Aaron Tviet as Gabe, the dead son who stands between them. Skirting the health debate, Diana's harrowing odyssey through varied diagnoses and treatments, as she tries to exorcise Gabe's ghost, exposes the crapshoot of looking for effective psychiatric and medicinal therapy. Even electroshock doesn't turn the trick.

Ripley deserves her Tony Award for her searing portrait of the alternately tranquilized and tormented Diana, but there's plenty of suffering to go around in the family that endures her episodes of mania and benumbed spaciness. Spencer as Dan perhaps suffers the most, trying to remain supportive and optimistic, but Jennifer Damiano also has a meaty role as Natalie, the forgotten daughter Diana has never bonded with.

While Natalie, an aspiring classical musician, makes intermittent attempts to connect with her mom, young Henry, an aspiring jazz musician, attempts to coax Natalie into romance and a real life. The cycle ironically repeats, handed down from estranged mother to daughter. As Henry, Adam Chanler-Berat is a younger Dan, echoing his admirable foolhardy devotion.

Boasting 29 titles, the score gives everyone, including Louis Hobson as an assortment of shrinks, a chance to shine. If the homogeneity of Kitt's music keeps it from reaching the somber, phantasmagoric splendor of Sweeney Todd and Assassins, I still find Next to Normal more terrifying. Because it hits home.

Hair (***1/2) -- America's "tribal love-rock musical" has an irritating new edge to it that I've never detected before. It originates with Will Swenson, who plays the hairiest member of the tribe, George Berger, with a streak of intoxicated, perverse spontaneity and a pouting Peter Pan refusal to grow up that is almost Rabelaisian in its robustness. For that reason, I find myself deeply enjoying Hair for the first time.

Of course, this may be heresy, for Gerome Ragni, who originated the role of Berger in 1968, also wrote the book and lyrics. With Swenson at its core, Hair separates itself decisively from the more spiritual Godspell, Joseph, and Jesus Christ Superstar, an earthly young man we can identify with. The ensemble plays to the audience with a similarly earthy tinge, descending amongst us more like mendicant street musicians and less like angelic hippy evangelicals. Their rags aren't quite so glad.

Casting itself adrift from chaste spirituality and double-underlined buffoonery, Hair now tells its own wispy tale more effectively. Gavin Creel plays the tragic hero of that story, Claude Bukowski, torn between personal idealism and duty to his country -- and his gung-ho, patriotic dad. Or he played it until a sprained ankle forced him out of action at the end of Act 1, and Paris Remillard replaced him after intermission. The difference was palpable, so it's good to hear that Creel is back onstage.

"Aquarius," sung by the electrifying Sasha Allen, and the "Let the Sun Shine In" finale still rock the house as righteously as they did back in the Vietnam War days. If you're like me, you'll be glad Caissie Levy has dialed down the religious fervor when singing the nonsense syllables of "Good Morning Starshine." A Broadway revival in the finest sense of the word.

Jersey Boys (***1/2) -- Having concluded decades ago that the lead vocal on "Big Girls Don't Cry" could have been sung just as artfully by a rutting alley cat, I haven't been eager to see the musical story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, resisting my wife Sue's importunities on several occasions. But with a Charlotte rendezvous at the Belk looming in spring 2010 and an opportunity to see the show while it's still a hot Broadway ticket, I finally yielded.

As a few of my theater colleagues had predicted, I was surprised by how much I delighted in the story -- and the music! -- of Jersey Boys. Thanks to the criminal tendencies of group founder Tommy DeVito, prompting the intercession of Jersey mobsters, the story of The Four Seasons' rise to fame had more twists than I'd anticipated, and the complications play on past the point where the foursome achieves international fame.

Obviously, it's the Marshall Brickman-Rick Elice book, deftly shepherded by director Des McAnuff, that supplies the real heat here, but the Steve Orich orchestrations give Bob Gaudio's music a fresh brassy zest. As far as the leads go, theatergoers needn't stress over who is handling the mics. Sue was more than satisfied with Corey Grant, who takes over for Jarrod Spector as Frankie Valli at Wednesday and Saturday matinees. At our performance, understudy Erik Bates stepped handsomely into the role of DeVito, replacing Dominic Nolfi. Sebastian Arcellus was warm and charismatic as Gaudio, the man who wrote the hits, but god knows who played the role last Friday night. That's when I spied him waiting for a 7pm show at FringeNYC.

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