BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at The Orpheum
"Wow. I knew the soundtrack, but was not expecting that!" Such was the repeated refrain that echoed throughout the theater lobby as gobsmacked Memphians filed out of Dear Evan Hansen, the first production of the 2019-2020 Broadway season at the Orpheum. Since its celebrated premiere on the Great White Way in 2016, the Tony Award winning Best Musical's original cast album, featuring music and lyrics by today's "it" collaborators with the Midas touch, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, has seemingly transcended those who self-identify as musical theater lovers. Rather, its contemporary, pop infused tracks have built appeal across a broad array of audiences, with many - particularly millennials - able to sing or at least hum them on command. For that, tremendous credit is owed to Ben Platt of Pitch Perfect fame, who originated the role of Even Hansen on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in the process.
Perhaps more so than any musical in recent memory, however, listening to the Dear Evan Hansen cast album on repeat bears no comparison to witnessing the show live on stage. Simply put, it is a starkly different experience. Sure, one can discern from the lyrics the story's central themes concerning social isolation, the fragility of relationships and our sometimes desperate need for human connection, particularly in an age dominated by social media. Listeners may similarly be able to determine the basic plotlines of Steven Levenson's book. Notwithstanding, those casual exercises offer little preparation for the intensely emotional and ultimately cathartic experience of sitting through the roughly two and a half hour production. To be clear, the show will not be everyone's cup of tea. It is low on frothy schmaltz and glitzy production numbers, and high on the social psychology and emotional whiplash. But Dear Evan Hansen resonates in both the head and the heart, and even those disappointed by the lack of tap dancing and a full orchestra, will nonetheless be provoked to great thought and happy they made a trip to the Orpheum.
Without giving too much away, the show opens in the bedroom of Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony), an archetypal teenager suffering from profound social anxiety and the resultant isolation from his peers. He lives with his single mother Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman), who cares deeply for him, but works long shifts as a nurse's aide to make ends meet while attending night school to obtain a paralegal certification. This leaves little time for mother-son bonding. We learn later that when Evan was a young boy, his father abandoned the family to start a new life. Heidi hopes that the start of the new school year will provide an impetus for Evan to break free from his shell. Evan's psychologist has even assigned Evan the homework of writing letters to himself to promote his sense of hope and positivity. School, however, provides Evan with little cause for optimism as he is bullied by Connor (Noah Kieserman), who is suffering a different form of social isolation and discontentment. Evan's other schoolmates include obnoxious family friend Jared (Alessandro Costantini), overachiever Alana (Ciara Alyse Harris) (think Tracy Flick in "Election"), and Connor's sister and Evan's crush, Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle). Rounding out the cast are Connor and Zoe's parents (Claire Rankin and John Hemphill), who sit at the helm of a household with its own complicated set of dynamics.
Having introduced these characters, something happens, thereby weaving a complex web of interrelationships and placing the previously detached Evan at the center of their lives. To avoid the risk of spoilers, this review will leave it at that.
The production is anchored by a tour de force performance by Mr. Anthony as Evan. He fully embodies the title character, hilariously and heartbreakingly awkward, and with the physical and vocal ticks to match. One can imagine that inhabiting a character like Evan Hansen throughout a more than two hour production (and with little "off stage" time) is grueling on multiple levels, but Mr. Anthony never lets up. Moreover, he delicately threads the needle between casting Evan as the sympathetic protagonist on the one hand, and master manipulator on the other. Rightfully, Mr. Anthony's portrayal ensures Evan is never fully let off the hook for what is objectively some pretty terrible conduct. But for all the skills that Mr. Anthony brings to his character work, it is his vocals that truly shine. He conducts a vocal master class, effortlessly executing the Pasek and Paul melodies without reliance upon a traditional stage belt. "You Will Be Found" is of course the show's most recognizable anthem, but "Waving Through a Window" is the true highlight of the production. He's just that good.
The other standout in the cast is Ms. La Rochelle as Zoe. Not to be dismissed as the prototypical "pretty girl in school" character, she imbues Zoe with refreshing complexity and emotional maturity. Her voice is exceedingly pleasant and ethereal, qualities most notable on Act I's "Requiem" and again on display in Act II's "Only Us." In an ensemble of characters with more brash personality traits, it is the understated performance of Ms. La Rochelle that serves as a counterpoint and gives the production its needed grounding and balance.
The adults never quite break through to the audience in the manner achieved by their younger counterparts in the ensemble, but in fairness, that is probably by design. As Heidi (the role for which Rachel Bay Jones earned a Tony Award), Ms. Sherman leaves few dry eyes in the audience with her 11 o'clock number, "So Big/So Small" in which she reflects upon the departure of Evan's father and her role as an imperfect, but nonetheless deeply committed mother. It is an ode to modern motherhood to which many can relate.
Modern and minimalist, the scenic design (by David Korins) relies primarily on a series of large digital screens to reflect the almost overwhelming role played by social media in the characters' lives. Throughout the show, it seems as if all of the characters' actions and emotions are continually being monitored and recorded by the likes of email, text messaging, Twitter and Instagram. The scale of the screens outsize the characters, perhaps an unsubtle commentary on the diminishment of human interaction in the digital age. Japhy Weideman's lighting design is outstanding, particularly in its use of overhead spotlights to place rightfully sharp focus on the characters. A concluding scene set in an apple orchard is a thing of great beauty. Director Michael Greif deserves kudos for bringing everything together in such an effective way.
At times, it felt as if there were not enough twists of plot to support the show's length, and particularly in Act I, there were moments that seemed slow moving. Nonetheless, patient audience members will find themselves richly fulfilled at the show's conclusion, and may perhaps even do some introspection. One of the great examples of the state and direction of modern American musical theater, Dear Evan Hansen provides an outstanding kickoff to the Orpheum season here in Memphis.
Dear Evan Hansen runs through October 13, 2019 at the Orpheum, 203 South Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee.