DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Music, lyrics, Benji Pasek, Justin Paul; book, Steven Levenson; scenery, David Kirins; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lights, Japhy Weidman; sound, Nevin Steinberg; projections, Peter Nigrini; choreography, Danny Mefford; direction, Michael Greif
I have friends who savor works of coming-of-age and teenage angst; I run the other direction. At the opening of DEAR EVAN HANSEN, I groaned and was not engaged. Fortunately, for me, the musical quickly made a right turn into other subjects of immediate currency and relevance: truth, lies, and social media.
Timid, shy, lonely Evan Hansen, on the advice of his psychologist, writes himself a letter of encouragement every day. It starts, “Dear Evan Hansen.” His latest letter is stolen by the high school bully Connor and tucked away in his pocket. The next day Connor commits suicide and his parents, finding the letter, assume that Evan is Connor’s closest friend. Not wanting to disappoint the parents and give them more grief, Evans goes along with the deception. It soon spins out of control as everyone assumes that poor lonely Evan was attempting to befriend poor disturbed Connor. Evan becomes a viral hero. By the end we see Evan, his letter, and Connor’s suicide all being used by various individuals to further their own point-of-view. Fortunately Justin Paul has steered clear of a sentimental ending. It is made clear that none of them make it through without consequences: some relationships are ruined; others are made stronger. It is implied that everyone involved will move on, heal and be wiser, maybe.
The score is wonderful, full of memorable songs, soft, reflective ballads with guitar and strings accompaniment.
It is a relatively simple set of sliding panels with projections designed to look like the glossy liquid screens of laptops, tablets and cell phones.
The story is multilayered with characters of much depth, and the production has a cast equal to the task. Michael Grief has superbly directed it as he did previous productions of Rent, Grey Gardens and Next to Normal.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN is something of an aberration from contemporary musicals. It is not an adaptation of, derived from, or inspired by…it is an original unto itself.
P.S. See article about a mother’s reaction to the musical: Susanna Schrobsdorf, “The Pursuit of Happyish; Dear Evan Hansen,” thanks for finding us. We’ve been waiting for a musical like you.” TIME, March 20, 2017.
A BRONX TALE
Music, Alan Menken, lyrics, Glenn Slater, Book, Chazz Palminteri, based on the play by Palminteri. Scenery, Beowulf Boritt, Costumes, William Ivey Long, Lighting, Howell Brinkley, sound, Gareth Dowen, choreography, Sergio Trujillo, direction, Robert De Niro, Jerry Zaks.
A Bronx Tale, taken from a 1989 solo play by Palminteri, was made into a movie with Palminteri and Robert De Niro directed by De Niro. It is loosely based on Palminteri’s upbringing in an Italian-American enclave in the Bronx. A nine-year old boy Calogero witnesses a shooting but refuses to identify the shooter to the police. As he grows into a teenager, he more and more comes under the influence of Sonny (the shooter), the neighborhood boss. The story ensues into a battle for Calogero’s soul between his father and Sonny. Act II develops into an outright steal from West Side Story: Calogero falls in love with Jane who happens to be black. In that neighborhood in the 1960s the Italian and black population did not mix.
The story is narrated by an older Calogero who moves in and out of the stage action to assume the role as the teenager while transitions are made by a wonderfully smooth male quartet.. Some of the roles border on stereotyping, but the commitment of the cast makes the character believable and engaging. The story and acting captured well the milieu and the people who inhabit it.
With a mixture of doo wop, Motown, early rock and roll and Broadway balladry, the music is a throw back for Menkin to his early period of Little Shop of Horror. A Bronx Tale, harkening to the Broadway musicals of an earlier era, markets itself as Jersey Boys meets West Side Story.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
Music, lyrics, Stephen Sondheim; book, Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond.
Scenery, costumes, Simon Kenny; lighting, Amy Mae, choreography, Georgina Lamb, direction, Bill Buckhurst. Production originally presented by the Tooting Arts Club, London at Harrington’s Pie and Mash Shop.
Technically this is not a Broadway production, but it can hold its own in this grouping in interest and quality.
The Barrow Street Theatre is a black box space with a balcony on one wall of the theatre. We have seen it in many configurations through the years. Whereas the London production of this particular Sweeney Todd was actually presented in a pie shop, Barrow Street Theatre has been transformed into a dingy pie shop. It is an immersive production. The 130 members of the audience (it is sold out for most performances) sit at long communal dining tables in front of which are a bar and a staircase. The performers play all over the space in the aisles around the tables and between them and sometimes on top of the tables. At the intermission the audience is asked to go to the lobby. When they return, all the tables have been given checkered tablecloths and other items have been added to spruce up the now affluent pie shop.
Twelve cast members cover all the roles with only Todd and Lovett covering one role. All were strong actors and adequate-to-strong singing voices. They also played a mean percussion with cutlery.
The orchestra numbers three players who play piano, violin and clarinet. It’s surprising the sound that can be derived with just those instruments.
Opening night for this production was March 1. It was just announced that it had made back its 1.22 million investment and is now slated to run until May.
COME FROM AWAY
Music, lyrics, book, Irene Sankoff, David Hein. Scenery, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Toni-Leslie James, lights, Howell Binkley, sound, Gareth Owen, musical staging, Kelly Devine, direction, Christopher Ashley.
On September 11, 2001 when the U.S. declared itself a no-fly zone, 38 planes bound for the U.S. with 6,579 passengers were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, a small town of 7,000 on the far eastern edge of North America. This is a musical about those four days. It was totally created by a Canadian husband and wife team. Come From Away was developed at the Canadian Music Theatre Project and Goodspeed Musicals’ Festival of New Artists.
The cast of 12 play multiple roles but combine to present a truly ensemble feel. Almost all the songs, even when starting as solo, end up being ensemble numbers. All the transitions are handled with remarkable ease, from narration to character scenes to solo singing to ensemble to movement to dance. The cast expresses the varied feelings resulting from the emergency landings, the agitation of the citizens arranging for food and lodging, people learning of the death of loved ones, to become narrators to link the stories. On stage is a band that plays folksy and lilting Gaelic music.
The set is gorgeous in its simplicity: the up stage wall is strips of barn wood slats that hide openings that become entrances/exits. Around the edges right and left are bare tree trunks that reach up to the sky, no tops visible. The center of the stage is a turntable covered with a few tables and chairs. Everything keeps constantly turning and shifting to give a new perspective of the groupings.
Kendra Kassebaum, an MSU alumna, had been in the production since its original production on the west coast. She left in August to return to her home in Seattle to start rehearsals for a new production of Ragtime cast as the Mother.
In the playbill is an insert card for the show that says on the back: “A True Story. To create Come From Away, writers Irene Sankoff and David Heil collected hundreds of hours of interviews with the locals in Newfoundland, as well as the passengers who were stranded there during that fateful week. These stories inspired the show you’re about to experience here tonight, distilled into 100 minutes, and performed by a cast of 12 representing nearly 16,000 people.” It was a truly enjoyable and moving time.
THE BAND’S VISITMusic, lyrics, David Yazbek, book, Itamar Moses; based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin; sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Sarah Laux; lights, Tyler Micoleau; projections content, Maya Cirrocchi; projections system, Five OHM; choreography, Patrick McCollum; movement, Lee Sher; direction, David Cromer. An Atlantic Theater Company production.
My favorite of the group is The Band’s Visit. We saw it last year downtown at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s Lindia Gross Theatre. In November 2017 it opened in a Broadway theatre and received glowing notices.
From Dear Evan Hansen to The Band’s Visit is to go from one end of the technology spectrum to the other. Hansen is flashy, fast, busy, always moving, full of technological wonderment. Visit is melancholy, wistful, unhurried, sad and sweet.
In 1996 the seven members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra come from Egypt to play at the opening of an Arab Culture Center in the Israeli city of Petah Tivah, near Tel Aviv. Unfortunately because they speak no Hebrew they get on a bus to Bet Hatikvah (fictional) a desolate city in the middle of the southern desert. By the time the mistake is discovered, the bus is gone. It only comes once a day. They are stranded in a town with no hotel and only one small restaurant. The locals take them in. Awkwardly the locals and guests find their common ground in music. In simplicity the scenes play out as the members of each group try to accommodate each other.
The curtain opens, and seven men dressed in band uniforms of powder-room blue march on. You never have to wonder who is a band member and who are the locals. They will never blend in color.
I have now seen four musicals with music by David Yazbek: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Dirty Rotten Scoundels and The Full Monty. I have no idea what his music sounds like. He completely creates a world and inhabits it with a sound that belongs there and nowhere else, that I cannot identify what is “his sound/style.” The music here is plaintive, wistful, and absolutely gorgeous. Throughout he has used mid-Eastern instruments and sounds. A small orchestra sits in the up left stage corner. When called for, the band members (ensemble or solo) play on stage.
Much of the cast from the downtown production transferred to the Broadway one, and they are all strong. Tony Shalhoub has never had so much downtrodden dignity. Katrina Lenk, the owner of the restaurant, is physically gorgeous and with a voice that matches. Fortunately she has three solos in which one can luxuriate in her sound and in her acting that completely catches the character.
David Cromer is a superb director. He somehow manages to turn a work so that it comes at you in a totally unexpected way. In his production of Our Town it started with its usual barren stage except the ladder in the middle; however, when Emily returns to the living with Mama preparing breakfast, suddenly a completely realistic set appears even down to smell of bacon wafting through the theatre. In The Band’s Visit he often starts scenes off to the side or in a corner with the rest of the stage bare; just as this desolate small village is in the midst of the vastness of the desert.
The creation of and the playing of music begin to move the scenes toward center and move people together. The scenes are quiet and intimate, and it is heartwarming to see the friendship developing between the characters. The distrust that they had at first for each other disappears.
After the company has taken the curtain call, the on-stage musicians and off-stage musicians all come together and break into a joyous jam session that lasts ten minutes or so.
“Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect” says one of the characters near the end of the play. So was this whole experience. As I walked out of the theatre onto 20th Street, I could have easily floated up to 47th Street to the hotel.
Ben Brantley in his pick for Theatre 2017 wrote:
“THE BAND’S VISIT. Pretty close to perfection, and of a subtlety seldom seen in Broadway musicals. David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s delicate story of Egyptian musicians stranded for one uneventful night in an Israeli desert town, directed by David Cromer, maps the common ground of longing and loss among disparate souls who almost — and there’s such sweet, sad beauty in that ‘almost’ — connect.”
Both Come From Away and The Band’s Visit share story lines and themes. In a time when we seem to be building walls and barriers from strangers and locally becoming more tribal, these two musicals depict a different picture. Both involve strangers who suddenly find themselves in locations that they did not expect and the reactions of the locals who shelter them. Through music the disparate groups find a common ground and way to bond.
Into this category also go:
Music, Stephen Flaherty; lyrics, Lynn Ahrens; book, Terrence McNally.
Music, lyrics, Jerry Herman; book, Michael Stewart. In January, Bernadette Peters and Victor Garbor take over the lead roles.
If you are going to New York in the next few months, please consider these suggestions.