Tag Archives: Benj Pasek

Imaginary Cyber Friends

Review: Dear Evan Hansen

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Playing to a Broadway house that barely packs in a thousand patrons, using no more than eight actors and eight musicians each night, with scant choreography and no glitz, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t going to fit most theatergoing definitions of a big Broadway musical, six Tony Awards or not. Yet big it is, for Steven Levenson’s book traverses multiple issues that absorb us these days, including bullying, the effects of social media, teen suicide, and single-mom parenting. Just as rare, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul frequently rise to the level of the emotions roiling inside Levenson’s characters, actually enhancing the drama on a couple of occasions.

Evan is a mess when we first meet him at Belk Theater, where seating capacity for the touring production is extended beyond the usual 2100-seat capacity with the musicians perched up above the action. Mothered by an anxious single mom who holds down a day job and goes to school at night, Evan is an even tighter tangle of anxiety. He dreads returning for his senior year in high school, afraid of the daily interaction with other people, tongue-tied with nearly everybody – especially Zoe Murphy, the girl of his dreams.

Zoe’s big stoned brother, Connor, bullies Evan on at least two occasions. On their first day back at school, Connor knocks Evan to the ground when he thinks our hero is laughing at him. That paranoia carries over to their next encounter at the computer lab, where Connor retrieves the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter that Evan has written as an assignment from his therapist, supposedly a daily pep-talk to himself. Thinking this is more mockery from Evan, Connor refuses to return the letter, which contains suicidal thoughts and Evan’s desperate yearnings toward Zoe. In a further act of aggression, when Evan awkwardly asks him to sign the cast on his healing broken arm, Connor takes a Sharpie and scrawls his first name – in big capital letters – across the full length of the cast.

So a whole host of ironies and misconceptions will explode when Connor commits suicide, and his parents, finding Evan’s letter in one of his pockets, mistake it for their son’s suicide note – addressed to his best friend. The big black letters that Connor had signed onto Evan’s cast, originally a nasty symptom of bullying, become a testament to their friendship, writ large. Tongue-tied as usual, Evan can’t shoot down the Murphys’ delusion that he can provide them with insights into the son they never really knew. In yielding, he finds that he can provide some therapy to others.

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If he can keep a steady flow of palliating information to the Murphys, Evan feels that he can help them in their grieving process. And establish a closer connection with Zoe, whose memories of Connor are even more unsavory than his.

In varying ways, then, the Murphys have unwittingly conspired in giving Evan an imaginary friend. With the help of Jared, who keeps reminding him that he’s more a relative than a friend, Evan can spin a backdated email correspondence with Connor filled with new feelings and faux memories. With the help – and intrusion – of Alana, a pesky busybody who seems attracted to him, Evan can establish a “Connor Project” tribute, a memorial website, and after he surprises himself by addressing a school assembly, a viral #YouWillBeFound hashtag when video of the speech lands on YouTube.

Taking the old imaginary friend concept to a whole new cyber level, Evan and Alana, co-presidents of The Connor Project, launch a GoFundMe initiative to restore the apple orchard where Evan and Connor fictitiously met. Adding new dimensions to the idea of an imaginary friend piles on new challenges and stresses for Evan. Some of these, of course, help him to mature and develop self-confidence. He’s speaking to an entire student body after starting out the year cowering in fear of interacting with just one of them.

Alone in his room at moments of highest stress, Evan turns to… an imaginary friend. Ironically, it’s Connor, who did nothing but torment him in real life. Connor’s posthumous transformation is now complete – in his family’s eyes, for Evan, and for thousands of followers at school and online.

Chiefly, Evan is stressed over all the lies he’s been telling Zoe and her parents, but he’s also been deceiving his mom – while coping with the sudden celebrity the whole #YouWillBeFound phenomenon has brought him.

Here is where the chamber size of the Dear Evan Hansen fails the potential magnitude of Levenson’s vision. Where are all the high school peers that Evan feels himself lost in, fears talking to – peers who might adoringly add to Zoe’s unattainable aura and desirability? Where are the admiring classmates who ratify Evan’s newfound relevance and fortify Zoe’s inclinations to give him a serious second look?

Basically, they’re projected onto the scrims and screens of David Korins’ high-tech set design, perpetually scrolling as social media feeds behind Evan’s bedroom, multiple rooms at the Murphy home, and various locations at school. It’s a cool alternative to populating the stage with energetic dancing teens but sometimes a cold one, especially in a space as large as the Belk.

What sweeps us past these limitations is how intently we become involved with both the Hansens and the Murphys. Anxiety, social inadequacy, and teen suicide are big things to cope with up close, and Dear Evan Hansen brings us there. Ben Levi Ross captures all the awkwardness, insecurity, and fearful caution that Levenson has written into Evan’s outward self, and he has the star-quality voice for the Pasek/Paul songs that reveal the inner self wishing to break free.

Marrick Smith doesn’t play up the suicidal kindred spirit of Connor as much as the sullen, domineering loner. In his imaginary friend afterlife, he becomes the tough-love antithesis of the “Dear Evan” pep talks endorsed by Evan’s therapist, a longhaired renegade forever. By contrast, Connor’s parents are wholesomely flawed. Aaron Lazar as the dad appears to have detached from Connor’s upbringing and to have given up on him, but when Evan encounters him in his workshop – and afterward at a powwow between Hansen and Murphy families – we realize that he had plenty he wanted to give.

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As “Anybody Have a Map?” her opening crosstown duet with Evan’s mom makes clear, Christine Noll as Cynthia Murphy is as clueless about how to cope with a teenage boy as Heidi Hansen is. But as a full-time suburban housewife, she has more free time to flit from one New Age fad to another, salving if nor solving her problem. Cynthia has the deepest need – and gratitude – for Evan’s cyber fables and projects.

Comes with the territory, Levenson tells us. Mom’s credulity and stubborn belief in Connor has strained her relationship with Zoe when we first see them coping together. Maggie McKenna struggled to untangle the enigma of Zoe on opening night, more so because her vocal on “Requiem” was the least intelligible in her family. There was a nicely calibrated combo of empathy, skepticism, and need as her familiarity with Evan grew, and the climactic “Only Us” love duet had an honest and intimate sizzle.

Ultimately, Jessica Phillips as Evan’s overextended, trying-so-hard mom stole the show from everybody except Ross. There’s a wonderful one-two punch before things reach a final resting point, with a wrenching “Words Fail” confessional from Evan following shortly after the unexpectedly turbulent meeting between the Hansens and the Murphys. Heidi had already stirred things up at the Murphys, but it was in her “So Big/So Small” testimonial that Phillips was absolutely devastating – at first narrative, then apologetic, before finally arriving at a stunning affirmation.

As an actor, there are moments when you might dread having to weep onstage, on cue, night after night. With “So Big/So Small,” I’d imagine that the performer has the opposite worry: getting too deep into this mom in this song could lead you to an emotional corner where you’re sobbing uncontrollably. When she finishes, we’re fairly convinced that a chunk of this show has been about her.

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For all its intense intimacy, the Pasek/Paul score also boasts some concentrated magnitude, since the musical tandem packages two anthems that get reprised. Climaxing Act 1, “You Will Be Found” seizes our attention, with the whole company joining Evan as his assembly speech goes viral, augmented by pointedly anonymous prerecorded spoken blather as the YouTube sensation takes hold. Even the relentlessly scrolling background projections suddenly crystallize into relevancy.

But don’t overlook Evan’s “For Forever” fantasy as you settle in to the story. This dreamy “two friends on a perfect day” idyll gradually ascends and soars, prefiguring the apple orchard fable Evan will devise to placate the Murphys – and echoing the lie he’s been telling about how he broke his arm. We don’t hear the backup voices for this anthem until it reprises briefly in the “Finale,” when all Evan’s hidden truths have been revealed. You may not immediately see all the reasons why the final scene is set where it is, but there’s a little bit of technical derring-do to announce that we’ve arrived.

There’s as much craftsmanship in Dear Evan Hansen as there is honesty, and that’s saying a lot.

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A Catchphrase Becomes a Mantra in “A Christmas Story”

Review: A Christmas Story, The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Long before it became New York’s AM haven for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, WOR was the late night hangout of Jean Shepherd, the place where he became something of a cult hero – or maybe a folk hero if you take his roguish, Bohemian homespun manner into account. His holiday idyll, A Christmas Story, recalling his boyhood in an obscure Indiana town, is the chief reason why we remember Shepherd. It’s likely also the reason why 1938 Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Guns are still available at Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, and Dick’s Sporting Goods more than 50 years after the last Red Ryder comic strip appeared in print.

Aside from the fabled Red Ryder air rifle – and the extra trimmings our hero Ralphie never fails to mention – there’s another familiar earmark in A Christmas Story. Whether he expresses his yearning obliquely through a magazine ad strategically placed in his living room, excitedly in front of a store display, panegyrically in a school essay, or confidentially in Santa’s lap, the barrier to Ralphie’s Holy Grail is always the same: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

As your might fear, for the phrase is already sufficiently repeated, A Christmas Story, The Musical turns the catchphrase into a pervasive mantra – a phantasmagorical one partway into Act 2 after Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher, reacts to his essay. Transported to a fantasy speakeasy, even Ralphie’s classmates pronounce the fatal slogan in mocking singsong, fiendishly relishing our hero’s failure to get what he so dearly cherishes.

We’d be fine if this expansion were the worst of Joseph Robinette’s mistakes in adapting the 1983 Turner Entertainment film for the stage. Years after Oliver and Annie had proven a pre-teen’s ability to carry his or her weight in a Broadway musical – and less than two years before Matilda would prove it again – Robinette looks to narrator Jean, Ralphie’s parents, and Miss Shields for avenues to expand his book or let composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul plump up the songlist.

You might retch at all the geniality that Chris Carsten lavishes on Jean, but it’s an enthusiastic heartland geniality, and he isn’t singing much. We can also allow that the epic stress that Lauren Kent as Miss Shields puts on the “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” prohibition siphons away some the ogre aspect that might taint Ralphie’s mom. But that strands Briana Gantsweg as Mother in the deadly realm of being almost entirely understanding and nurturing, toward her husband and her sons – in two of Pasek & Paul’s most sweetly innocuous songs. They stop the show in ways that aren’t helpful.

Most of the true joy that beams out at us at Ovens Auditorium in this show comes from Ian Shaw as the ever-embattled, ever-tenacious Ralphie (alternating with Michael Norman) and Paul Nobrega as The Old Man, a similarly-assailed eccentric who barely takes notice of his pint size buckaroo’s numerous tribulations. Largely ignoring Ralphie, The Old Man’s Herculean challenges include taming the furnace, eluding the next-neighborhoods dogs, and winning recognition in a very silly crossword puzzle contest.

With Pasek & Paul rising to the occasion, perhaps the best musical moments in the show are songs inspired by The Old Man, “The Genius on Cleveland Street” and “A Major Award.” Nobrega’s struggles with the crossword puzzle also give Gantswag her best moments, striving to feed the answers to her intensely dimwitted husband without defiling his self-esteem.

Starting out with Shepherd taking us to his WOR studio A Christmas Story, The Musical takes its time before reaching cruising gear. But times were slower in 1940, when Robinette sets the story, and set designer Walt Spangler and costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy create a folksy, slightly cartoonist charm that chimes well with this familiar yarn, which will warm your holiday a little if you’re patient. Playing time, 1:54, is 21 minutes more than the movie, so nobody’s in a rush.