…it turns out it’s going to be a pretty damn good show!
In this era of, “take a moderately successful movie, throw in some stunt casting and turn it into a musical,” I search for those ever more rare gems that are original works for the stage. Friday night, in Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage, I hit that even rarer theatrical Grand Slam, original book, original lyrics, original score and…AND, it was really, really good! I went into this show blind, I knew nothing about it except it was directed by Michael Greif (i.e. Next to Normal, Rent, that fact alone is sufficient to get my posterior into any theater seat!) I was rewarded with a wonderful and moving evening of theater. It’s one of the reasons I try and encourage people to take a theatrical risk here and there, if you always default to the known quantity how are you going to discover something new, something potentially great? With all the truly exceptional shows I’ve seem multiple times (and will see again), Cabaret, Next to Normal, Les Mis, Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…the second or third time around are never as good, you can never recapture that moment of discovery.
But, before I get totally side tracked, let me get back to this show.
Dear Evan Hansen, I don’t want to give too much away, covers a not uncommon and universal topic of the outcast teenager and explores too often relevant affects social media can have in both aggrandizing and ostracizing people, especially teenagers. The story revolves around two teenage boys, Evan Hansen and Conner Murphy, both social outcasts who could not be more different, yet shared many similarities. Both had no friends, both were being medicated, both had less than ideal family lives and both felt trapped, with little concept of escape.
Minor spoiler alert here.
These characters were never friends until one commits suicide; after that they develop a pretty strong bond. Their first song together is easily my favorite song in the show. You’ll have to trust me this posthumous relationship just works. The suicide comes out very early in the show and if I’m going to recommend you see this show, which I am doing, I feel an obligation to mention it. Everyone I spoke to at intermission and after the show mentioned someone they knew who committed suicide; which plays right into the premise of the story. We all have some internal need to connect with a tragedy, especially suicide, and if this is a tender topic for you, perhaps this show is not for you. I think it confounds us, this act, where the perpetrator is the true victim, yet so many can suffer the affects and also feel victimized. The core of the story revolves around how the families, schoolmates (after all he had no friends before he died) and complete strangers (enter the social media aspect) react to the tragedy; the recriminations, the search for consolation, the need to place blame and the search for absolution.
Lest you be concerned, this show does not devolve into some sort of Wagnerian death cycle. Rather, this complex topic is explored with honest forthrightness and just the right touch of humor and is in the end an uplifting story. A coming of age story. A story that says it does get better, you’re not trapped.
The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, which lean not unpleasantly toward the modern rock opera style, have gained neat purchase in my not-so-sub-conscious and are a great compliment the book by Steven Levenson. I’m mildly frustrated not to have a song list to reference and even more perturbed that a soundtrack is likely nowhere in the near future. The song “Sincerely, Me” (no idea if that’s the actual title) is easily my favorite song and establishes the relationship between Conner and Evan; it’s actually quite funny and helps to set the balance between the drama and comedy. The poignant sister’s song, “No Requiem,” questions why everyone is mourning someone they did not know and did not like and she resolves that she will not feign grief for someone who made her life difficult, despite the fact that she is quite obviously grieving. There were so many good songs!
What’s most impressive about this show is how complete it feels. I know they’ve been work shopping it for a while but the Friday night performance was the first preview performance and if they were that good on the first night think what they’re going to be like in a a couple of weeks when they’ve really settled into their roles. Sure there weren’t a few things here and there, the first number was a little wobbly, there was one duet with Conner and Evan where the actor’s dynamics seemed a little off; some minor audio issues, mostly when the sister was singing; but really that’s just being a picky. The positives of the show far outweigh any first performance wobbliness. I am very tempted to go back towards the end of the run and see where they are then, it can only get better.
Not to take anything away from the rest of this excellent cast but the core of the show are Ben Platt and Mike Faist as Evan and Connor, respectively. I suppose casting Mr. Platt could be considered “stunt casting” (personal per peeve) but as I am totally unfamiliar with the Pitch Perfect-verse it concerns me not at all. Plus, young Mr. Platt has some serious theater cred, most impressively having recently played Elder Cunningham (Book of Mormon) on Broadway, and he has an actual theatrical resume. Mr. Faist, likewise, while young is building an significant resume and his turn as Connor is quite impressive. I might actually prefer it to Mr. Platt’s performance, but that’s a fine hair to split. The two actors have great chemistry as their characters depict the opposite sides of the “outcast” coin. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t give special praise to Rachel Bay Jones, who’s “Mother’s Lament” (see without a song list I make up my own names) had me in tears, it was a powerful performance of a very poignant and truth filled song.
Finally, this post would be incomplete without the cherry topper of the evening, while loitering after the show, thanks to the quick eye of new friend, I was able to get Michael Greif’s autograph! No disrespect to the lovely actors but that just really made my day! It’s a pretty rare opportunity.
I sincerely hope this makes it way to Broadway, and I’m quite willing to forego the opportunity to see Clueless the Musical or Fight Club: the Rock Opera, to see something like this instead.