Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of How It's Gon' Be
I am happy to report that all the hosannas, awards and attention were no fluke. Dear Evan Hansen is a superior musical, with a beautiful score that skates between folk, rock and pop. The songs support the emotionally wrought narrative arc, a solidly constructed book that provides authentic dialogue spoken by a convincing octet of characters, five teenagers and three adults.
Evan Hansen is a high school student with anxiety issues and rock-bottom self-esteem. On the first day of his senior year, his single mother Heidi tries to give him a pep talk, reminding him to write the self-affirmations suggested by his therapist, starting: "Dear Evan Hansen: Today is going to be a great day, and here's why." Heidi takes overtime at her nurse's aide job to make ends meet, and takes classes in a paralegal program to improve her earning ability, so she is not around a lot. But it is clear that she cares deeply and worries constantly about her son. Another suggestion Heidi makes is to ask kids to sign the cast on his recently broken arm, as a way of breaking the ice with them.
The first day of school is not going so well. Evan is badgered by Jared, a vulgar kid for whom the term "butt head" was coined, whose mother is friends with Evan's mother, and therefore requires him to be Evan's "friend." Evan humiliates himself before the girl on whom he has a hopeless crush, Zoe Murphy, and is knocked down by Zoe's brother Connor, a depressive, belligerent stoner. A few days later, a tragedy occurs in the community and Evan's self-affirmation letterwhich Connor had swiped from himand Connor's signature on his cast lead to a series of misunderstandings that change Evan's life in ways he never imagined.
Without giving away any more of the story, it must be said that another character plays a vital role in promoting the changes in Evan's life. That character is the internet. Other plays have used email or other online communications within the story, but Dear Evan Hansen goes much further. Here, the internet creates expansive actions that explosively take on a life of their own and make a deeply personal experience into a world-wide phenomenon, free of boundaries or controls.
On opening night at the Orpheum in downtown Minneapolis, Stephen Christopher Anthony stepped in for Ben Levi Ross in the title role. Anthony has been the alternate Evan Hansen from the start of the tour, performing the part on weekend matinees, and is slated to replace Ross this fall. Anthony is well up to the task, with sharply insightful acting and a clear, full singing voice (strained, just a bit, on some of the many falsetto notes written into the score). He expertly delivers the anxiety-driven machine-gun pace of Evan's speech; his sweet innocence in doing his best to reach out, as his therapist and his mother have urged him to do; his snarky, cutting comments toward his mother when he finds life experiences beyond what she could provide; and the slide down the slippery slope between doing what is good and doing what is good for him. In "Waving Through a Window," he creates a painfully realized picture of social isolation. His delivery of "For Forever," seeming to convince himself that a fabricated truth is part of his real life, is ravishing, and when he faces the toll of his deceit in "No Words," the audience hangs on to every tortured word.
The rest of the cast shine as well. Jessica Phillips is a force for maternal perseverance as Heidi, launching into powerful rock vocals in "Does Anybody Have a Map?" and "Good for You," then a heartbreaking folk-driven admission of her frailty in "So Big/So Small." As Zoe, Maggie McKenna gives a striking picture of the "normal" child who is overlooked because of her parents' attention to her troubled older brother, which she expresses with bleak poignancy in "Requiem," later expressing her hope, along with Evan, of happiness smiling upon them in "Only Us."
Broadway veterans Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll as Larry and Cynthia Murphy (Zoe and Connor's parents) vividly express the swarm of feelings that attend their fractured family and the hopeful remedy Evan represents. Lazar brings an especially heartrending delivery to "To Break in a Glove." As Connor, Marrick Smith seethes with unexplained anger and self-loathing. Jared Goldsmith plays Evan's pseudo-friend Jared, a perfectly formed model of the obnoxious kind of high school boy who turns everything anyone says into a dirty joke. As Alana, a student who compensates for her invisibility among her peers by joining every club and running for every school office, understudy Ciara Alyse Harris gave a wonderful performance filling in for Phoebe Koyabe.
The physical production manifests this dominating presence of the internet. It melds David Korins' set design, Japhy Weideman's lighting design, Nevin Steinberg's sound design andthe jewel upon the crownPeter Nigrini's projections, a constant stream of words and images from various online platforms, ferociously working to magnify every morsel of input into breaking news tumbling into everyone's inbox.
The entire package is directed by Michael Greif with momentum that never lags, the scene settings sliding on and off seamlessly, actors always maintaining fidelity to their characters, and the ever-present force of social media acting as a sword of Damocles threatening to descend sooner or later and tear the characters' illusions asunder. There is no ensemble beyond the eight principals, and little dancing, though what little there is has been well staged by choreographer Danny Mefford. Conductor Austin Cook leads a seven-piece orchestra, visible on a loft above one side of the stage, giving each song in the vibrant score the sense of urgency felt by the characters.
With its heavy themes, including suicide, Dear Evan Hansen is not a show for small fry, but middle and high school students can certainly deal with the themes and issues embedded in the narrative. Evan has a tough row to hoe, and he screws it up considerably, but leaves us with a sense of hope that we really can learn from our mistakes and move ahead, maybe being able to really believe that "Today is going to be a great day, and here's why." Dear Evan Hansen is a musical very much of this moment, but with universal truths and exquisite artistry in its execution.
Dear Evan Hansen, through June 9, 2019, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $74.00 - $249.00. For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.dearevanhansen.com/tour.
Book: Steven Levenson Music and Lyrics: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; Director: Michael Greif; Choreography: Danny Mefford; Music Supervision, Orchestration and Arrangements: Alex LaCamoire; Scenic Design: David Korins; Projection Design: Peter Nigrini; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman; Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg; Hair Design: David Brian Brown; Music Director and Conductor: Austin Cook; Music Coordinators: Michael Keller and Michael Aarons; Vocal Arrangements and Additional Arrangements: Justin Paul; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Xavier Rubiano CSA; Production Stage Manager: David Lober; Associate Directors: Sash Bischoff, Adam Quinn and Danny Sharron; Associate Choreographers: Jonathan Warren and Mark Myars.
Cast: Jared Goldsmith (Jared Kleinman), Phoebe Koyabe (Alana Beck), Aaron Lazar (Larry Murphy), Maggie McKenna (Zoe Murphy), Christiane Noll (Cynthia Murphy), Jessica Phillips (Heidi Hansen), Ben Levi Ross (Evan Hansen), Stephen Christopher Anthony * (Evan Hansen), Marrick Smith (Connor Murphy). *Appears at Saturday and Sunday matinee performances