Waving through Evan Hansen’s remarkable window

Evan 1
The cast of the Dear Evan Hansen tour includes (from left) Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen, Aaron Lazar as Larry Murphy, Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy and Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy. Below: Ross’ Evan seeks connection in an isolating age in the Tony Award-winning musical at the Curran. Photos by Matthew Murphy. 2018.

It’s absolutely astonishing that a musical about pain – in itself a painful experience – can be so enjoyable. But Dear Evan Hansen is a deeply felt show that wrings tears but is so artfully crafted that its pain is also a pleasure.

This is also a show that managed, in the shadow of Hamilton a season before it, to become its own kind of phenomenon. Much of the credit went to original star Ben Platt, who originated the role of the title character, a high school senior whose discomfort in his own skin much less the world around him is palpable. There were also plaudits for composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for songs that felt vital and contemporary yet still carried emotional weight within the trajectory of the plot. Songs like “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found” quickly took on life outside the musical, making Evan Hansen the show people wanted to see (after Hamilton, of course).

Producers wisely put the show on the road as quickly as possible, and the good news is the touring company now at the Curran is every bit as powerful and moving as the Broadway production. Platt’s shoes are awfully hard to fill, but Ben Levi Ross gives a remarkable performance as Evan – naturalistic enough to feel real but theatrical enough to make breaking into song feel like it makes total sense. Keeping that tricky balance is a distinguishing feature of director Michael Greif’s work throughout the show. This is an intimate musical – only eight characters – that is (as hard as it is to believe these days) not based on a book or a movie or a cartoon or meme. It’s an original story by book writer Steven Levenson about the power of the truth.

When a classmate commits suicide, Evan is mistakenly identified as a close friend of the deceased. What’s surprising is neither Evan nor his supposed friend, Connor Murphy, had any friends. Evan is almost pathologically shy and has trouble navigating even the smallest social interaction and Connor was a rebel who spent most of his time angry and high. Still, once the connection between the two boys is made, the misunderstanding quickly leads to lies of increasing size and significance. Evan finds himself caught in a difficult place where he doesn’t want to disappoint Connor’s family, who are so surprised and delighted Connor had a best friend, so he doesn’t correct their misapprehension. And once he’s embraced by the Murphy family, his miserable life as a lonely kid of an overworked single mom is suddenly brightened. Evan’s mom is loving and doing her absolute best juggling a son, a medical career and night school, but here in Mrs. Murphy, Evan finds a surrogate mom who is happy to cook for him and talk to him and not want to fix all of his, as he puts it, “broken parts.” And here’s a dad who, unlike Evan’s dad who bolted years ago and started another family, shows interest in him and actually acts like a dad.

To further complicate things, Evan has long harbored a crush on Connor’s little sister, Zoe, and now that he’s spending all this time in the Murphy house making up a friendship full of imaginary incidents, he can’t help but feel the complicated pull of his attraction.

Evan 2

As Evan and the Murphys grow closer, Evan’s fellow high school students rally around him as the flashpoint for all things Connor Murphy until Evan becomes a viral sensation promoting inclusion and kindness and the notion no person should ever feel so alone or forgotten that they take their own life.

Dear Evan Hansen is a musical built on discomfort. Evan’s physical presence telegraphs discomfort at practically every moment (something Levi does with such natural efficiency that it never feels affected), and once he begins what will become an avalanche of lies, the anxiety level only goes up and up. And yet the audience is fully with the show, especially with Evan, whose behavior is understandable even if you want to scream at him and prevent him from digging in deeper and deeper. By Act 2, when the Internet has blown Evan’s lies to terrifying proportions, the whole thing has to come crashing down. So it does, but not in a punitive way. More in an emotional, prepare-for-an-ugly-cry kind of way.

In the centerpiece role of Evan, Ross is both brittle and resilient. We see Evan struggle and crumble and find his way. Ross’s voice has the vulnerability and power that Platt’s does, which gives extraordinarily dynamic power to the score, especially in “Waving Through a Window” (with the window being Evan’s metaphorical isolation as well as the isolation behind the “window” of our ever-present screens), “For Forever” (his reverie about a fantasy friendship with Connor) and his breakdown aria, “Words Fail.”

The whole cast is superb, with Jessica Phillips as Evan’s mom really coming to life in Act 2 with a raging “Good for You” and a heartbreaking (truly) “So Big/So Small.” Aaron Lazar as Connor’s dad delivers a beautiful song/scene with Evan in “To Break in a Glove” that masterfully deals with a father’s grief and disappointment, and Christiane Noll as Connor’s mom is like an open wound of regret and delusion.

Maggie McKenna as Zoe, Connor’s sister (who is not a Connor fan) and Evan’s love interest, is astonishingly natural as a young person who thinks she has things figured out and is mostly dismayed that she really doesn’t. Her love duet with Ross, “Only Us,” has a beautiful simplicity to it, like something two young people who are just finding each other, might actually express.

And the other teenagers – Marrick Smith as Connor, whose death does not prevent him from being an active character; Jared Goldsmith as Evan’s reluctant, ever-acerbic friend Jared; and Phoebe Koyabe as Alana, an ambitious senior unafraid of creating opportunities for herself – are equally as effective, with Goldsmith contributing the bulk of the show’s welcome comic relief.

They say the truth shall set you free, and that’s true. But what they don’t say is how hard it can be to even get close to the truth. There’s the crux of Dear Evan Hansen right there. Evan can twitch and dodge and apologize and be uncomfortable all he wants, but he can’t face the ultimate truth about himself and just how in need of help he really is. And his mom and the Murphys are just as reluctant, in their own ways, to acknowledge what they most need to acknowledge. This is such a beautiful, painful and deeply human show – our flaws and our salvation, the pain and the beauty, are so intricately intertwined, it’s hard to tell one from another.

[bouns video]
Ben Levi Ross performs “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dear Evan Hansen continues through Dec. 30 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $99-$325. Call or visit sfcurran.com. DAILY DIGITAL LOTTERY: Lucky Seat hosts a digital ticket lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets available per performance. Visit luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen until 9 a.m. the day before the performance you’d like to see and follow prompts to enter the lottery.

If/Then? No/Thanks.

If Then 1
Idina Menzel (center) and members of the original Broadway cast perform Tom Kitt and Briany Yorkey’s If/Then at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Menzel as Elizabeth and James Snyder as Josh work through a timeline. Photos by Joan Marcus

If/Then is not a musical I like much. I saw it on Broadway because I was enthusiastic about creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey after their powerhouse effort on Next to Normal (a show that I had problems with but admired). My reaction – meh – was very much the same when I saw If/Then in its touring incarnation featuring much of the original cast, including star Idina Menzel.

There are some pretty melodies, good songs and affecting moments in the show, primarily courtesy of an excellent cast working hard to make something of this rather mushy tale. The choreography is ridiculous and constantly calls attention to itself in this contemporary tale of real-life, grown-up relationships and the choices we make. Imagine the TV show “thirtysomething” mashed up with the Ernest Flatt Dancers from “The Carol Burnett Show” and you’ll get an idea of what the show actually looks like. Watching the touring production at the Orpheum Theatre, part of the SHN season, I couldn’t help think that Kitt and Yorkey were attempting to do what Stephen Sondheim and George Furth were doing in Company and that is use music to slice open the complex emotions of being a functioning adult in society, making relationships with friends, lovers, family while trying to realize your true self. During the seemingly endless number that ends Act 1, “Surprise,” about two birthday parties (everything in the show is in twos thanks to its Sliding Doors parallel lives gimmick), the edgy, surprising brilliance of Company kept flashing through my brain while I processed the wholly uninvolving scene before me. There’s a lot of earnestness here but not much depth or entertainment value.

If Then 2

The songs simply pour forth in a similar-sounding stream for nearly three hours. A lot of it is appealing but without much emotional heft. Characters seem to be much the same before, during and after the song, so there really doesn’t seem to be much point to their bursting into song.

The couple exceptions involve anything sung by LaChanze, who will make anything she sings seem deep, important and transformative. Alas, she doesn’t have much to sing, and when her character does get a big number, “What Would You Do,” primarily in duet with her girlfriend, it gets pretty shrieky (echoing Menzel’s lesbian duet in Rent, “Take Me Or Leave Me,” a much more engaging number).

And the other exceptions are the big solos for Menzel, which, strangely, come four songs apart in the second act. “You Learn to Live Without” is the best character song in the show, a moment when Menzel’s bifurcated character, has a real moment of connection. The other, “Always Starting Over,” is the mega-belt number tailor made for Menzel to please her Wicked and Frozen fans. The song is a showy showstopper customized to showcase Menzel’s incredibly dynamic voice. It’s a classic 11 o’clock number and sets up the ending perfectly, an ending that is almost touching save for the fact that it has taken too much work parsing the two stories (in one Menzel is Liz, the other Beth, one with glasses, one without) and the mild confusion results in mild emotion at the end.

Menzel’s male costars have to wrangle some middling material. Anthony Rapp as an old college flame who has veered more toward the male end of the relationship spectrum, has one decent song, “You Don’t Need to Love Me” and one awful one, “Best Worst Mistake.” James Snyder as the Army doctor whom Liz/Beth meets by chance in Central Park, has a sweet song, “You Never Know,” and one that tries so hard to be sweet it’s just maudlin, “Hey Kid” (a Maltby-Shire rehash that was on the corny side the first time around).

What saves the show is Menzel’s star power. Neither of the Liz/Beth parallels is particularly interesting, but she brings humor, charisma and, of course, that voice, to the party, and that’s where the crackle to If/Then (which really seems like it wanted to be called What If?, like the lackluster opening number) begins and ends in this or any other timeline.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Idina Menzel about her work on If/The for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
If/Then continues through Dec. 6 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$212. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Ripley, believe it or not, still rocks Normal

Normal 2
Jeremey Kushnier (left), Alice Ripley (center) and Asa Somers star in the national tour of Next to Normal at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Below: Tony Award-winner Ripley sings her plaintive aria, “I Miss the Mountains.”Photos by Craig Schwartz

When I saw Next to Normal on Broadway, I was of two minds. For much of the first act, I glowered in my seat, overwhelmed by the Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey score – too many lyrics, loud music of the pop-rock-showtune mega-mix variety and super-slick storytelling and direction by Michael Greif.

But somewhere in Act 2, I got completely caught up in the story of Diana, a bipolar woman whose illness has dominated and in some ways warped her husband, Dan, and their 16-year-old daughter, Natalie. From the song “Maybe (Next to Normal),” a duet for mother and daughter, to the end of the show, I was in tears.

It was the story more than the staging that got to me, and it wasn’t so much the music but the characters and the choices they make that was ultimately so moving.

So I left with the question: why does this show have to be a musical? The Pulitzer committee didn’t seem to mind when they handed out awards.

Now having seen the show a second time courtesy of the national tour at the Curran Theatre, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, I’m wondering less about the music and more about the way the story is over-told.

Mark Wendland’s three-level set is essentially a construction site. It’s a metal framework full of rock concert lights (designed by Kevin Adams) and sliding panels that give the impression of a “normal” suburban household. We learn that Diana and Dan were both architecture students, which may also explain the construction site.

The three levels, shallow though they may be, certainly allows Greif to move his cast around in dynamic ways. Curt Hansen, who plays the enigmatic and somewhat menacing Gabe, leaps from level to level like a gymnast going for the gold. The tiers can also be read as levels of mental stability. The ground floor is the most grounded in reality. The middle level is dangerous purgatory where you can go either way. And the tippy top is “abandon sanity all ye who enter here.”

Normal 1This is an intimate story told with only six actors (one of whom plays several parts). The band (under the direction of Bryan Perri) is larger by two players. Though there’s musical staging by Sergio Trujillo, it’s not a dance show. There’s razzle-dazzle, but there doesn’t really need to be.

The creative team seemed to fear that this small-scale story could be static, so they amped it up to glitzy Broadway levels, and the result is machine like and distancing.

That’s why Alice Ripley’s central performance as Diana is so extraordinary. She won a Tony for the role because she’s the aching human center of this machine. On tour, her performance is still brave in its vulnerability, though she is relying on vocal tricks to manipulate a somewhat ragged voice. She has several vocal ticks that warp certain vowel sounds, but her acting is impeccable. She’s funny and raw and (aside from her too-cute clothes and haircut) utterly believable as a woman losing control of herself.

I actually liked Asa Somers as Dan more than J. Robert Spencer on Broadway. Dan is a tricky role to pull off because he’s the “boring” one. He’s the rock on which the rest of the family leans. But he has his own issues, as we see in the revealing reprise of “I Am the One” toward the end of the show, a duet with the limber and strong-voiced Hansen.

Emma Hunton as Natalie reveals a gorgeous voice, and though her character’s descent from nose-to-the-grindstone good girl to pill-popping clubber is only sketched in at best, she makes a strong impression. There’s nice chemistry between Hunton and Preston Sadleir as nerdy stoner Henry, a stalwart teen whose heart she has, somewhat inexplicably, captured.

In the role of Diana’s doctors – a psychopharmacologist and psychiatrist who eventually prescribes ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) – Jeremy Kushnier gets to be a rock star and a member of the (perhaps evil) medical establishment. It’s nice to see Kushnier back on stage at the Curran, where he played Tommy DeVito in Jersey Boys.

With such a sturdy cast executing the material, I come back to my dilemma: why do I fight this musical so strenuously before getting sucked into it? I appreciate that Yorkey and Kitt have created such a serious musical and are aiming for depth and emotion. But as much as I enjoy some of the songs in context – “I’m Alive,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” – the score never captured my imagination as much as it blasted my brain. Like a jolt of electricity.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Next to Normal continues through Feb. 20 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $33-$99. Call or visit www.shnsf.com