Let’s face the theatrical facts: most hit musicals are based around one great song and a bunch of filler. “Cats” has the song “Memories” and “Love Never Dies” has its titular song.
It’s the rare musical that achieves honor by a syncretic combination of music and story – “Hamilton” and “Wicked” come to mind if we’re talking about stage plays of the current generation.
The Tony Award winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen” has plenty to offer audiences searching for a memorable night of musical theater. That being said there are elements of the staging that are obviously borrowed from previous incarnations of other worthy productions.
Evan, brilliantly portrayed by Stephen Christopher, is the typical lone wolf. An anonymous teen without friends Evan has been assigned a project for his next visit to his therapist. He must write a letter addressed to himself expressing his sincere thoughts about his life. Evan lives with his mom a single mother who works overtime as a nurse to support her neutered nuclear family.
Evan’s dark doppelganger, a fellow student named Connor also has similar issues. Only nobody likes Connor because he’s kind of a bully, pothead and all around asshole. Connor’s parents are well to do and his sister is the object of desire to Evan. Connor steals Evan’s letter in computer lab. A few days later when Connor commits suicide the letter is found in his pocket and everyone thinks that he wrote this treatise to Evan. Confusion follows.
“O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” That quote sounds positively Shakespearean but it’s actually from 18th century novelist Sir Walter Scott.
Connor was about to beat the shit out of Evan on their last encounter but Evan, in order to get closer with Connor’s sister Zoe, starts to invent a past history of his relation with Connor including fake emails that detail their friendship.
Soon the emails go viral and students who never cared, or themselves are loners, flock to the new reality of Connor as a sensitive soul who could no longer bear to live in a cruel world.
The staging of the play puts the characters amongst an array of projected images that reflect Instagram, Twitter and Facebook posts. We constantly hear the recognizable sounds of each social media outpost as new info is added. The stage design is cramped and up-front.
The songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who in addition to winning accolades for this play on Broadway also won the Oscar® for Best Song for the film “La La Land.”
Some of the songs branch out from solos to more rarely performed trios, with awesome harmonies to match. The movement of the performers during the musical numbers gives momentum to the proceedings.
While the majority of the play takes place in cramped surrounding the finale removes the projecting screens and opens the stage to reveal huge empty spaces previously unseen. A tree park that plays a big part in the made-up emails becomes the closing scene.
While this juxtaposition of clutter and clearness of vision makes for great theater please realize that it’s the oldest trick in the book. The Sam Mendes helmed production of “Cabaret” used a similar device and that was not original even in 1993.
While the storyline of “Evan” produces quite emotional responses consider the film “World’s Greatest Dad,” from 2009. An indie release helmed and written by Bobcat Goldthwait, the film told the story of a single father (Robin Williams) whose son, a non-entity at high school, accidentally dies of strangulation during a masturbation marathon. His dad creates a journal that goes viral.
Despite the unoriginality of “Dear Evan Hansen” the play resonates with spirited segments. At times the performers cry/sing during their songs. Perhaps this is the one flaw in the production.
You should never physically cry on stage as opposed to film. Your make-up will run. In a play you are on a tight rope high above the stage. In a film the tight rope is on the floor.
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through Sunday, November 24 at the Hobby Center.