DEAR EVAN HANSENBook by Steven Levenson; Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Dallas Summer Musicals
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographed by Danny Mefford
Musical Direction By Garret Healey
Scenic Design by David Korins
Costume Design by Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman
Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg
Production Manager: Juniper Street Productions
Production Supervisor: Judith Schoenfeld
Production Stage Manager: David Lober
Stage Manager: Michael Krug
Assistant Stage Mgr: Sarah Testerman
Projection Design by Peter Nigrini
Hair Design by David Brian Brown
Associate Scenic Design by Amanda Stephens
Associate Costume Design by Stephen Rotramel
Associate Lighting Design by Ken Wills
Associate Sound Design by Jessica Paz
Associate Projection Design by Dan Scully
Associate Hair Design by Daniel Scott Mortensen
Assistant Costume Design by Sarafina Bush
Assistant Lighting Design: Jessica Creager by
2nd Assistant Lighting Design by Amanda Clegg Lyon
Moving Light Programming by Scott K. Tusing
Stephen Christopher Anthony- Evan Hansen
Stephanie La Rochelle- Zoe Murphy
Jessica E. Sherman- Heidi Hansen
Claire Rankin- Cynthia Murphy
Noah Kieserman- Connor Murphy
John Hemphill- Larry Murphy
Alessandro Costantini- Jared Kleinman
Samantha Williams- Alana Beck
Sam Primack- Evan Hansen Alternate
David Jeffery- U/S Evan, Jared, Connor
Matthew Edward Kemp- U/S Evan, Jared, Connor
Ciara Alyse Harris- U/S Zoe, Alana
Asher Muldoon- U/S Connor, Jared
Coleen Sexton- U/S Heidi, Cynthia
Daniel Robert Sullivan- U/S Larry
Kelsey Venter- U/S Heidi, Cynthia
Maria Wirries- U/S Alana, Zoe
Reviewed Performance: 11/26/2019
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Pretend I'm something other than this mess that I am
Cause then I don't have to look at it
And no one gets to look at it
No, no one can really see
Cause I've learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me
I never let them see the worst of me
Cause what if everyone saw?
What if everyone knew?
Would they like what they saw?
Or would they hate it too?
Will I just keep on running away from what's true?”
-"Words Fail" – Evan from DEAR EVAN HANSEN
DEAR EVAN HANSEN (DEH) was given life from the creative genius minds of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The nugget for the story that they constructed music around came from Pasek. It was at his own high school that a similar incident took place that a fellow student had died. After the usual journey of readings and workshops, DEH had its world premiere in July 2015 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. then the musical graduated and went on to Broadway at the Music Box Theatre where it had its opening night in December 2016. At the 71st Tony Awards, DEH received nine nominations winning six, Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book, Best Actor in a Musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
I kept my promise to myself ever since I saw the original production of RENT on Broadway in that I do not listen to the cast recording until after I see the actual musical. The only song I was aware of from DEH was the number done on the Tony Awards telecast. I knew just a tiny bit of the plot, but for most of it, I was left in the dark. And I am SO, SO grateful that I stuck to this rule (you should try it!). Listening to the score for the first time and allowing the book to unfold with its blinding emotion bleed out before me on stage with the cast Tuesday evening, I discovered the shocks and rollercoaster emotional ride of an extremely painful and at times difficult to sit through musical. Please know I do not mean that in a bad way whatsoever, it was because It hits way too close to home.
I was not prepared whatsoever for Steven Levenson’s magnificent book to be so blunt, organic, and catastrophic in its ability to build and explode such poignant emotion. The book meshes with the score flawlessly. I found it fascinating how the book did not hint with an obvious break in the dialogue or give the usual musical cue that a number was coming. Instead, the music softly whispered into the dialogue or the actor just started to sing straight from their dialogue as if his or her thoughts suddenly had a melody. Levenson does not allow his dialogue to become preachy nor does it pick sides. He allows you, the audience, to decide on what was the right decision in the scene. He doesn’t tie it all up with a nice bow and everyone is fixed up emotionally. The book takes some of the extremely graphic, emotionally tough scenes and lets the truth pour out, with only a few pieces picked up and repaired, he left some on the floor unresolved, like real life. Levenson has created one of the best books written for a musical.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s musical score for DEH is both sumptuous and impeccable from beginning to end. What makes their score rise above many of today’s Broadway scores is that it truly felt as if every musical number had its true purpose to command the stage and the attention of its audience. There was not a single number that was lackluster or one that made one think, “they could have cut one.” Each song was beautifully crafted to fit emotionally for the character’s subtext.
The score is brought to a luxurious life by a nine-piece orchestra which is perched on stage on an upper level. The orchestra includes violins, viola, and cello. No synthesizers! I fear the day when this score is played with that electronic mess. It sounds so ethereal and moves the heart deeply when you hear those live strings fill the theater with those glorious orchestrations. The combo mix of guitar, piano, and strings with those sublime vocals bringing that Tony award-winning score to life is something you MUST experience at the music hall. It was surreal. Trust me. A round of thunderous applause to Musical Director Garret Healey and his excellent musicians.
Michael Greif’s direction for DEH is perfection because he views this more like a dramatic piece with music than a musical. Think of it as a modern-day Arthur Miller play. After all, Greif is the man who directed Jonathan Larsen’s RENT. Greif’s staging and blocking are intimate but oh the visuals and subtext he achieves from this are astounding. Pay careful attention, he foreshadows in his staging and it is breath-taking. His use of subtext was brilliant which you saw over and over all evening long. It was refreshing to see a director stage a musical with realism and avoid the dreaded “sing out to the audience” steel trap. In several intense, dramatic scenes and musical numbers, he had his actors facing each other and not the audience. Thus, it made us -the audience- feel more like the “other” person in the room who accidentally walk into the room and came into the situation and is observing uncomfortably. It gave the musical number an aura of organic, stark realism. One of the best examples of this is in the Act II number “Words Fail”. Greif also had each of his actors cloak their characterizations in truth, devoid of a single drop of schmaltzy acting. This is a piece that you cannot phone it in. It’s impossible due to its intimacy, book, and score. The audience will sense it and you will have them bored out their minds. DEH can only work if every single actor on stage are all on the same page (it’s a cast of eight). Greif’s work in DEAR EVAN HANSEN is jaw-dropping inspiring.
When it comes to the visual portion of the production, it’s the trio of designers that create a whirlwind of visual brilliance to bring us into the troubling heart and mind of Evan: Scenic Designer David Korins, Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman, and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini. Korins’ sets are simplistic in concept but extremely functional. There are circular, moveable platforms that serve as the homes for the Murphys and the Hansens. He has other small pieces that also appear to complete the “look”. In the final scene of the musical, he designed a simple visual, but it is visually so moving it will touch your heart. He has an assortment of video screens, including two towers that whisk across the stage that not only help in dividing the stage to let the audience know we are in two different “places” at the same time but also serve as video screens for Nigrini to project images on. Speaking of Nigrini, he has all evening long a cornucopia of social media images that appear on the various screens that frame the stage. They come from Facebook, Instagram, etc. He also has simple images like a kitchen sink, a window, among other simple photos. Then later Evan’s video and letter. These projections – especially all the social media- play a major factor in the book and score of DEH. It almost becomes like the narrator with a subtext for the musical. I picked up on its dark foreshadowing of how social media plays such a cruel evil within our society today. I immediately got choked up as I started to connect the dots. Weiderman’s lighting is impressive and adds a layer of emotional intensity to many of the musical numbers. There are no spotlights used, instead, he designed and programmed lighting piercing from within the stage. I noticed that during some of the complex, gripping lyrics were exposed on stage, the lighting slowly intensified around the actor, and when the actor’s vocals and emotions subsided so did the lighting. That was sublime.
This eight-member cast shimmers and shines so brightly, both as individuals and as a unit. Samantha Williams delivers a meticulous performance as “Alana Beck”. Alana is one of Evan’s school mates who becomes co-president of The Connor Project and somehow puts herself deeper into the myth that she was a friend, but she (like Evan) has drunk the Kool-aid of finally being noticed by her peers. Williams doesn’t allow her characterization to trip into the waters of typical “nerd” stereotypes but instead gives Alana a more heartfelt, logical girl who strongly feels she’s on the right path and is doing the right thing. Even though the path is heading into a dead-end road. Williams is winsome and bold in her portrayal.
Alessandro Costantini portrays “Jared Kleinman”, he states right from the start that he is not Evan’s friend, but a family friend. He tells Evan to make sure that he tells his mom he is only friendly to him that way his parents will continue to pay his car insurance. I know! What an ahole! When Jared sees Conner (Noah Kiseerman) on their first day of school he tells him he likes his new look, its very “School shooter chic”. That line drew uncomfortable laughter from Tuesday evening’s audience. But be honest everyone- we were ALL thinking that. Ironically, Constantini’s character is the one I didn’t like. His performance was just that damn good. Costantini knew where to land his cruel jokes to get the best reactions all evening long. He has a terrific musical number (along with Kiseerman and Stephen Christopher Anthony) titled "Sincerely, Me". A rollicking, wickedly funny trio number that all three actors have great fun with, in particular, Costantini. Constantini’s Act II scene work with Anthony is his best work of the evening. Dark, painful, and organically real with both actors completely in the moment.
Comprising the Murphy household are parents Cynthia (Claire Rankin) and Larry (John Hemphill), and their two teenage children, a daughter Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle) and a son Connor (Noah Kieserman). They are a wealthy family as Larry is a Lawyer. From the outside, they “look” like the picture-perfect family unit we all see plastered on social media in those holidays and family vacation photos and immediately think, “they have it all. No problems, no worries about making ends meet.” In DEH, the book, score, and lyrics desquamate the reality of the “American dream” with this family. As the parents, Rankin and Hemphill deliver smashing performances that crest marvelously on their dramatic arcs within their characterizations. They smartly bypass the familiar actor crutches of taking their characters' emotions down the “usual” road we have seen before in “those” situations. Instead, they both wisely choose fresh, bold, yet immensely moving decisions as actors with their choices. I thought it was a refreshing decision on the part of the creative team to focus more on the insight of the father, instead of the mother as in most plays, musicals, and movies do in these situations. Pasek and Paul composed a touching ballad for Larry to sing to Evan in the garage titled "To Break in a Glove" in Act II. As someone who had his father leave at an early age, the lyrics punched into the heart like a boxer with horseshoes in his gloves. Hemphill’s soothing vocals and beautiful, loving approach of finally opening up for the first time – as if were to his son- was splendid.
Stephanie La Rochelle (Zoe) and Noah Kieserman (Connor) deliver exceptional performances on Tuesday evening. As Connor’s sister, and the girl who holds Evan’s heart in her hands, La Rochelle grasps the audiences’ heart from the get-go. She displays honest confusion and regrets when it comes to her brother, while greatly struggling to comprehend where Evan fits in her brother’s life and her heart. La Rochelle has a divine pop/folk soprano vocal that works its magic in the two duets she has with Stephen Christopher Anthony (Evan Hansen), “If I Could Tell Her” and “Only Us.” Noah Kieserman warrants extra rounds of applause because he has the difficult task of having to fill in the gaps within the score and book regarding his character Connor. There is a lot not answered. While on one side, I get it why it was done, but we as the audience should at least know some of his inner demons or conflicts in one song for him to sing. Just so that we can feel something for him or at least understand. Nonetheless, Kieserman was impressive and vivid as this angry, lonely teen who has problems with drugs. But then at school, he bumps into Evan, razzes him about his cast, then signs his name in huge letters all over it. Kieserman has a very expressive face that easily showed that while he is furious at the world, you could see the hurt still in his eyes. He didn’t create Connor to be the paint by number thug, but a teen screaming inside, but outside he had a steel wall as he moved through this cold, insincere, everyone like my post world.
Jessica E. Sherman’s performance as Evan’s mother, Heidi Hansen is in a word- sensational. Let’s add another word- miraculous. Heidi is a single mother struggling to make ends meet. She is raising Evan on her own (this includes financially), working full time and she is going to college as well to become a paralegal. It was like I was watching my high school years thrown on stage for all to see each time Sherman and Anthony had any scenes together. I was reliving them, and it was EXTREMELY difficult to watch this in the darkness. Sherman’s chemistry with Anthony was so perceptibly honest. Sherman went all-in with her arc, subtext, and characterization. From beginning to end. Her choices within her acting craft and subtext for “Good for You” was deeply uncomfortable and painful to observe. Because it was the truth, she allowed Heidi’s inner soul to roar out in that quartet (with Alana, Jared, and Evan). To hear a mother say that to her son, I was crushed. But then came her solo number “So Big/ So Small”. This is where Sherman allowed Heidi’s heart ebb tears of regret, sorrow, and loss. A mother and son. You could see Sherman crying, her voice cracking as she emotionally felt those amazing lyrics. But she KEPT on singing full out. I, along with many in the audience were wiping tears off our faces. When she finished the song, leaving her heart splattered on the stage floor, the audience responded with deafening applause for a prolonged length of time. And my god, did she deserve that!
While I was doing my research for this musical and looked at the national tour website, I was caught by complete surprise that I had seen and reviewed Stephen Christopher Anthony’s work before! I reviewed his performance as Frank Abagnale Jr in the National tour of Catch Me If You Can when it came to Dallas Summer Musicals in 2013. Now seven years later he returns in the title role in DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Evan has what can best be explained as social anxiety. The book nor the lyrics ever state exactly what Evan has or what he is battling. This role is extremely complex that requires meticulous attention to both the physicality and emotional arc and subtext that is ever-changing within Evan. I can see this role in the wrong actor’s hands (and oh sweet lord, it will happen!). It can easily become a hellish, ego trip, hammy, nightmare of a performance to sit through. In Stephen Christopher Anthony’s hands, it is an unparalleled, mind-boggling, devastating performance.
Anthony gives Evan tics and odd movements that spring up when he is nervous or uncomfortable or just unexpectedly pops up. He will touch and rub his eyelids with his hands, or tug the bottom of his shirts, or pull on the straps of his backpack. They are never over the top, but subtle. However, he is consistent. They never disappear. Or do they? Catch this brilliant actor’s commitment to the character later in the musical. Anthony gives Evan a unique voice pattern that is endearing and works terrifically with his comedic beats and pace. Because I remember his work in Catch Me If You Can, I can see the difference in the comedic styles he has created here, and it is remarkable. Because Evan is the central character and the rest of the company revolves around his actions and what he does, chemistry and subtext is everything. Anthony’s connection with his cast is razor-sharp and unbreakable. Then come the darker, traumatic scene work and music created for Evan. You can either go way over the top or be false. Or go through the motions. Which you cannot in this piece. Anthony goes 100% in. You can see it, feel it, and hear it. He displays with his full body and emotionally how he feels when things begin to unravel within his life. It is crushing him, and we feel it along with him, every single second. This is an actor who stays in the moment and never once let's go. His subtext is devastating and wounds the soul in several key scenes and musical numbers, especially in Act II.
When it comes to that illustrious score, Anthony has a bountiful fete of music for his luminous tenor voice to feast on. His incredible detail and attention to the lyrics are spectacular. His first number, “Waving Through A Window” is a powerful, poignant ballad that grips the audience from the first note to the very end. Anthony brings us immediately into the lonely world that Evan lives in. The solo musical number that I felt where he just shredded the audience’s hearts to pieces was “Words Fail” in Act II. Anthony’s tenor vocals soared into glorious high belt to falsetto, but emotionally he was letting his heart and soul shatter to pieces before the Murphy family. I could see Anthony visibly cry, wiping his nose, so deep into the mind of Evan’s world crumbling, his vocals somehow navigating through his tears, even though he was crying, he was even able to sustain his notes. It was a phenomenal number, both vocally and emotionally. Stephen Christopher Anthony's performance of "Words Fail" reminds me why I so love the art of musical theater.
Evan’s arc goes through a vast and dark arc within the characterization, especially his subtext, and now pile on his social anxiety. Now throw eleven musical numbers that require high tenor vocals-including falsetto and belt. Oh, and you have some incredibly emotional Act II scene work where you expose your naked raw pain and heart to those you love. Stephen Christopher Anthony accepted all these challenges (and more!) and gives an unprecedented, prodigious performance. Anthony’s performance is one of the BEST performances I have EVER seen at the music hall.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN brings situations that are happening within our culture today and does not take sides. I can completely see why it won the Tony Awards for Best Musical, score, book, and lyrics. It is an ORIGINAL musical. Not a jukebox musical. Not based on a movie. Not based on a Disney hit. But original. This is incredibly RARE in today’s musical theater. If you have teenage kids, you should MOST definitely go as a family and see this. If you are a one-parent household, you should MOST definitely go with your teenage kids. If you have never seen a live musical before, this is the perfect musical to see. For those who refuse to sit through one more friggin Jellicle Ball, then you MOST definitely need to go see this to replenish your love for something new in musical theater. It is an emotional musical with serious subject matter. But it just might open communication within your family afterward. This is a musical that will stay with you way after the curtain call. It might even stay with you for a couple of days. It did with me. It’s that powerful.
National Tour- Dallas Summer Musicals
Music Hall at Fair Park
Playing through December 8, 2019
FOR TICKET INFO: https://dallassummermusicals.org/shows/dear-evan-hansen/
FOR GROUP TICKET INFO: http://dallassummermusicals.org/tickets/group-tickets/