It was a star studded opening night at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles as I spotted Nia Vardalos, Producer Stacey Mindich, book writer Steve Levenson, and music creators Benj Pasek & Justin PaulKaty Perry and her entourage take their seats right before the house lights clicked to black.
Scenic designer David Korins (Hamilton) symmetrical panels and boxes onstage display a chaotic projection design by Peter Nigrini of photos, DMs and familiar social media icons with unclicked “likes.” He also cleverly placed the musicians onstage up in a mezzanine level looking down on the cast.
I’ve been fondly listening to the 2017 Tony Award winning Best Musical “Dear Evan Hansen” soundtrack for weeks, and happily the show starts with a bang within the first few minutes as the moms – Heidi Hansen (Stage and TV star Jessica Phillips) and Cynthia Murphy (Tony Award nominee Christiane Noll) sing one of the most popular tunes “Anybody Have a Map?”
Both moms are broken and trying hard to survive with son’s who live a recluse life their senior year in high school. Heidi is a hard working single mom and Cynthia is rich, doesn’t work and is going crazy trying to engage with her son. Both actresses sing beautifully, while stumbling for the right thing to say to their sons. Heidi encourages Evan that going to college will be great “how many times do you get to start over in life?” She wishes she could go to college with him and restart her own.
As a parent I could relate to the exhausting and sometime terrifying responsibility of raising happy and productive children in today’s world. Especially when children want to shut their parents out, glare at technical devices, and not listen to advice or guidance. This catchy tune is so well liked that they sell the title of this song on T-shirts in the lobby.
The book by Tony Award-winner Steven Levenson is an interesting story, yet I was’t satisfied with the ending. In fact, I was disappointed.
What you will love is the score by Grammy, Tony and Academy Award winners Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (“La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman”). The songs are brilliant and catchy from the get-go, with themes about the sun streaming in, you will be found, and darkness crashing in. I learned that the musical has its origins in an incident that took place during Pasek’s high school years. Each song is a winner and will stay in your mind driving home, and for days, weeks or months after seeing this show.
Direction by four-time Tony Award nominee Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”) begins at a fast and fascinating pace all the way through intermission. I sat riveted watching Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen in his first national tour. Ross wows the audience as an adorable, yet awkward loner who is so socially uncomfortable, reciting lines at such a fast pace, similar to an auctioneer. His anxiety ridden mannerisms, also remind me of Dr. Shaun Murphy in the television hit The Good Doctor. There is a vulnerability, as he stands alone in the center of the stage singing another beloved number “Waving Through The Window,” providing vibrant colors to the lyrics with his powerful and pleasing voice.
The comedy grows darker as we meet Connor’s sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna) who believes her brother is a psychopath. This assessment is confirmed by someone at school labeling Connor’s attire as “very school-shooter chic,” causing some of us gasp in our seats.
Meanwhile Heidi reminds Evan to take his daily anxiety pill and to start each day by writing a “Dear Evan Hansen” letter (thus the name of the show) beginning with “Today is going to be a good day….” This letter gets into the wrong hands leading to a confrontation at school between Evan and Connor and later inadvertently welcomes Evan into the despondent Murphy family.
As Evan seeks help from acquaintance Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith is hilarious and provides comic relief) in the deceit, the two continue this insane and misguided attempt by fabricating a friendship to keep Connor’s memory alive, so Evan can stay in the spotlight.
This plan transforms everyones life in the show, and elevates the social status of Evan, Zoe, Jared and precocious opportunist Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe).
The unlikely chemistry between Evan and Zoe develops when they are together singing the engaging song “If I Could Tell Her.” When the cast sing the ethereally number “Disappear” in perfect harmony, it gave me chills, as did “You Will Be Found.”
During the 15 minute intermission, my friend and I wondered how this story would end, because the lying and deception was spinning out of control as Evan, Alana and Jared encouraged the world to help fund and raise $50,000 for #TheConnorProject.
I felt the pace disappointingly slowed down after intermission, yet I was happy to see the talented Broadway star Aaron Lazar (who I reviewed when he performed in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts) as Connor’s father Larry singing “To Break In a Glove”.
The music intensifies when Heidi, Alana, Jared and Evan sing “Good For You” and when Heidi sings her gut wrenching melodic solo “So Big/So Small.”
The cast is splendid in their roles and the songs soar filling the entire theatre, yet the story line fails at the end with its weak consequence for such a selfish plot by a teenage boy. While creating an important role for himself to feel a sense of belonging, the boy gets girl and then loses girl, disappoints many because of his dishonest actions.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
“Dear Even Hansen stars Ben Levi Ross in the title role, Jessica Phillips plays Heidi Hansen. Christiane Noll, Aaron Lazar, Marrick Smith, Maggie McKenna, Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe complete the on-stage company.
Book by Steven Levenson, and score by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul and Direction by Michael Greif. Scenic design by David Korins, projection design by Peter Nigrini, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, sound design by Nevin Steinberg and hair design by David Brian Brown. Music supervision, orchestrations and additional arrangements are by Alex Lacamoire. Ben Cohn is the Associate Music Supervisor. Vocal arrangements and additional arrangements are by Justin Paul. Danny Mefford is the choreographer.
Following its run in Los Angeles, “Dear Evan Hansen” until November 25, 2018 the show will move to ASU Gammage in Tempe, Arizona (November 27 – December 2, 2018), The Curran in San Francisco (December 5 – December 30, 2018) and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa (January 1 – 13, 2019). The First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen” will begin a digital lottery for the Los Angeles run at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre on Monday, October 15 at 11 a.m. Fans can submit for the chance to purchase a limited number of $25 tickets available per performance. Tickets range from $99 – $285 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Ahmanson Theatre is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles, 90012.For tickets and information, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 972-4400. Media Contact: CTGMedia@CTGLA.org / (213) 972-7376. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
This review is featured OnStage Blog –