Friday, June 16, 2017

Dear in the Spotlight

On our final evening in New York, we went to see a show that I'd been hearing all kinds of great buzz about: Dear Evan Hansen. That was three weeks ago; in the time since, it has won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. To that praise, I'll add my own. The hype is true.

Dear Evan Hansen is the story of a socially awkward high school student. When another student at his school commits suicide, a series of misunderstandings leads people to think he was a close friend of Evan's. White lies begin to pile up, first intended to comfort the grieving family of the student, but soon to nurture a viral wave of popularity that has swept up Evan.

This is not the relentlessly heavy night of theater it might sound like from that description. There are many fun and light moments sprinkled throughout the musical. But what makes Dear Evan Hansen so great is that it does engage, in a deep way, with grief, loneliness, divorce, and other serious topics.

The music and lyrics were created by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The pair recently won an Oscar for their work on La La Land, but this is far and away the superior effort. Every time you think you've heard the best song Dear Evan Hansen has to offer, another brilliant one comes along to make you rethink that. The first act in particular is just one powerful number after another: memorable melodies that instantly set up camp in your brain, paired with thoughtful lyrics that work on your emotions once there.

The cast was uniformly excellent, though I was truly blown away by two performers in particular. (And sure enough, these were the very two who themselves won Tonys this week.) Ben Platt stars as Evan Hansen, giving such a "leave it all on the field" performance that the mind boggles how he can do it eight times a week. We got a sample of his vocal prowess a few nights earlier in the trip, when he was a guest on the Colbert episode we saw taped. Now we got the full context, a performance that fused together hyperactivity, shyness, and profound sadness, and belted it to the back of the house.

Rachel Bay Jones played Evan's mother Heidi, and was every bit as moving. Her character, a struggling single mother, essentially bookends the musical -- the very first song is about her inability to connect with her son, and the last new song is a heartbreaking confession of the feelings she hid from him all his life. Just when you think the show has wrung everything out of you, Rachel Bay Jones comes in to squeeze out more.

No doubt in the wake of its awards, Dear Evan Hansen will become a hard ticket to get. Many of my readers wouldn't have many opportunities to see a show on Broadway in any case. But if you get the chance, I can't recommend this highly enough. It was grade A, the best thing I've seen in multiple trips to New York. (And I've already mentally filed away the possibility of an "encore"; the first national tour has been announced for next year, and it happens to open here in Denver.)

That brings an end to my stories of New York. But I do have one or two more trip stories to relate. I'll get to that next week...

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