BWW Review: Audience Taken On An Emotional Roller-Coaster Ride by Superlative DEAR EVAN HANSEN at the Connor Palace

BWW Review: Audience Taken On An Emotional Roller-Coaster Ride by Superlative DEAR EVAN HANSEN at the Connor Palace

Rogers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma" ushered in the era of book-centric American musicals that have been designated as "musical comedies." The beginning, middle and ending structured stories normally contain singing, dancing, show stoppers, comedy, a few conflicts, and a satisfying ending, in a two-act format.

In the near recent-present shows like "Next to Normal," "Come From Away," "The Color Purple" and "Spring Awakening" have brought the genre to a new probing of sociological and psychological issues including schizophrenia, incest, rape, homosexuality and social responsibility, thus ushering in the format of the "musical drama." These scripts center on dramatic story-telling and less on glitz and spectacle.

"Dear Evan Hansen," now on stage at the Connor Palace, as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series, places its spotlight on social anxiety, suicide, family angst, and teenage drug addiction as major plot issues.

"Dear Evan Hansen," which opened on Broadway in December 2016 to universal rave reviews, was nominated for nine awards Tony awards, and won six statues, including those for Best Musicaland Best Score. The show is still running to packed-houses on the Great White Way.

The musical is loosely based on an incident that took place during the musical's composer and lyricist Benj Pasek's high school days, whena teenager invented an important role for himself, leading to credit that he did not earn and, therefore, did not deserve.

The show's musical sound is that of pop-contemporary musical theatre, borrowing format elements from modern compositions. It is art songs and narrative story-telling. This is not the style of Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe, but that of new voices, such writers as Jason Robert Brown ("Parade" "Last Five Years"), Jonathan Larson ("Rent"), Lin-Manuel Miranda {"In the Heights" and "Hamilton"), and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey ("Next to Normal"). Their music uses pop and rock to tell provocative, boundary-pushing stories.

The story of "Dear Evan Hansen" centers on a teenager with social anxiety. Upon the advice of his therapist, in order to expose himself to the positive parts of life, Evan writes letters to himself detailing what was "good" about each day.

Besides Evan and his mother, Heidi, Jared, Evan's only "friend," and their attention-starved school-mate, Alana, the story-circle also includes Connor and Zoe Murphy and their parents, Larry and Cynthia.

Connor is a troubled teenage drug-user, with anger management issues. Zoe is the girl that Evan crushes on from afar. In spite of their wealth, the Murphy family is in major crisis and appears to be falling apart due to parental conflicts and Conner's drug and conduct issues.

At school, one day, Connor makes fun of Evan's awkwardness and knocks Evan to the ground. Zoe apologizes for Connor's actions.

That same day Connor encounters Evan again, and unexpectedly offers to sign the cast on the boy's broken arm. Connor accidentally finds one of Evan's self-encouragement letter in the computer lab's printer, reads it, becomes furious at the mention of Zoe, and storms out, taking the letter with him.

Several days later Evan is called to the principal's office and told that Connor has committed suicide. Evan's letter was found in Connor's pocket, but it is assumed to be Connor's suicide note addressed to "his friend Evan," since it started, "Dear Evan Hansen" and was signed "Me."

Evan is invited to the Murphy house to explain his supposed friendship with Connor. Though he intends to "nod and confirm" to avoid making things worse, Evan, in a fit of panic, lies, pretending he and Connor had been best friends, emailing each other from a secret account.

Thus the story spins into a tale of humorous and angst-laden misinterpretations, a growing closeness of Evan and Zoe, an on-line fund raiser to honor Connor, growing conflict between Evan and his mother, and Evan admitting his lack of friendship with Connor.

The emotional tale ends as Evan writes himself a last letter, admitting to finally being at peace with who he is.

The touring production is generally mesmerizing. From the opening number, "Anybody Have a Map?," to Connor's I want/am song, "Waving Through a Window," to the emotion-draining "Requiem" and finally to the first act ending, the gut-wrenching "You Will Be Found," which found many in the audience vocally sobbing, the first act is an emotional roller-coaster.

Though interesting, the second act is somewhat anti-climactic. Part of the issue is that it lacks the humor and drama of the opening stanza. Secondly, the pacing is slower, and finally, though the song "Finale" is affirming, much of the play's final spoken speech, given by Jessica Phillips, as Evan's mother, was lost in a low volume mumble. It, unfortunately, was not the only speech that was lost due to poor modulation by the sound team, but, since it is the pivotal communication, leading to the play's moral, the loss of hearing the words was upsetting.

Slender, stoop-shouldered, sensitive Ben Levi Ross, was spell-binding in his development of the socially inept Evan. He gave his own spin to the role, totally immersing himself into the psyche of the ego-weak Evan. He didn't portray Evan, he was Evan! He didn't just sing songs, he presented meanings to the words of the score.

(Side notes: Having seen Tony winner Ben Platt on Broadway as Evan, local audiences can be assured that Ross's interpretation, while different, is as effective. Also be aware that the role is played by Stephen Christopher Anthony on Saturday and Sunday matinees.)

The rest of the cast was strong. Ciara Alyse Harris, who stood in for Maggie McKenna who normally plays Zoe, was believable as the only member of her family that was emotionally on course.

Jared Goldsmith was delightful as Jared Kleinman, the sex-obsessed, computer nerd.

Marrick Smith's interpretation of Connor would have been aided by a clearer intensity and a more obvious development of the character's mood swings.

Phoebe Koyabe was properly self-centered as Alana.

As the adults, Aaron Lazar (Larry), Christiane Noll (Cynthia) and Jessica Phillips (Heidi) all nicely textured their roles.

For the younger generation, the extensive use of newsfeed, and computer and I-phone communication, will illuminate "life-as-it-is." Others might find the constant bombardment of visual stimulation to be over-load. The changes aren't a-comin', they are here! The growing use of computer generated sets and special effects, like the contemporary musical sounds, is part of what makes for the modern musical drama.


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: "Dear Evan Hansen" is a mesmerizing evening of contemporary musical theater. Complete withpop-contemporary music sounds, complete with art songs and narrative story-telling tunes, and a relevant story line, it is one of the finest examples of the new wave of musical dramas. Don't go expecting show-stoppers and an escapist plot, this is life as it is being lived, with all its angst and issues. The touring production is excellent and is an absolutely must see!!


"Dear Evan Hansen" runs through June 30, 2019 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series. To purchase tickets, visit playhousesquare.org, call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org



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From This Author Roy Berko

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