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Dear Evan Hansen
Book by Steven Levenson, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Directed by Michael Greif
Choreographed by Danny Mefford
The Fox Theatre
October 23, 2019

Cast of Dear Evan Hansen
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Dear Evan Hansen National Tour

I was especially looking forward to the latest touring production at the Fox, having heard a great deal about it before, although I hadn’t managed to see it yet. Dear Evan Hansen has had a lot of hype, and won a lot of awards, and inspired quite a bit of debate along the way, and now it’s here in St. Louis in an engaging, thought-provoking, visually stunning production that’s timely and inventive, and sure to spark discussion about the various issues it raises. With striking technical qualities and an especially strong cast, it’s a show that, at least for me, has lived up to its hype.

This show is as striking for its format as it is for its story. While I’m sometimes skeptical of “teen” because they often seem to be using the same tropes over and over again, Dear Evan Hansen has something a little different to say along with some of the usual territory but with an inventive structure that makes it seem more fresh. The story focuses on various issues including mental health, teen suicide, parent-child relationships, communication in the social media age, and more. It centers on Evan Hansen (Stephen Michael Anthony), a socially awkward teenager who writes letters to himself as an assignment from his therapist. Evan lives with his constantly busy single mother, Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman), who works a full-time job as a nurse and also takes classes to become a paralegal, so she doesn’t have as much time as she would like to spend with Evan. Starting his senior year of high school, Evan isn’t particularly looking forward to school. He doesn’t have any friends to speak of, except for the snarky Jared (Alessandro Costantini), who seems to only talk to Evan because their families know each other. Evan also has a crush on schoolmate Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle), who has a difficult life of her own, with a troubled older brother Connor (Noah Kieserman) and parents, Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Claire Rankin) who seem so preoccupied with Connor that they don’t pay as much attention to Zoe. When Connor and Evan briefly cross paths before an unexpected tragic event, Evan finds himself caught in a web of untruths that start as a misunderstanding and then spiral into more, until before Evan knows it, he’s all over social media and getting more attention than he ever could have dreamed. With the assistance of Jared–who knows the truth–and another classmate, Alana (Ciara Alyse Harris)–who doesn’t know–Evan becomes leader of a movement, as he also grows closer to Zoe and her family, and his relationship with his own mother grows increasingly strained. As events go spiraling out of Evan’s control, and as his new-found popularity begins to affect his personality, Evan is faced with a difficult choice. What will he do, and how will these events effect everyone around him?

This is a dynamically staged show, with a look and feel unlike other musicals I’ve seen. David Korins’s scenic design features movable set pieces representing Evan’s bedroom, the Murphys’ house, and more, and everything is surrounded by screens with projections designed by Peter Negrini, representing social media posts, e-mails, and more, in a constant flow of information that coincides with the plot as it unfolds. There’s also striking lighting  by Japhy Weideman that enhances the overall look and feel of the production, and detailed character-specific costumes by Emily Rebholz. The band, led by music director Garret Healey, delivers the driving, emotional, contemporary sounding score with flair.

The cast for this show is deceptively small. There are eight characters, but the staging and big sound make it seem like there are more. There is some support from various voices representing the social media posts, but onstage there are only the eight cast members, led by a truly remarkable performance from Anthony as the fast-talking, nervous, initially lonely, conflicted Evan. Anthony has a great tenor voice for songs like “Waving Through a Window”, “For Forever”, “You Will Be Found”, and “Words Fail”. Evan is very much the center of this show, and Anthony’s performance drives the story well. Also excellent is La Rochelle in a relatable and well-sung performance as Zoe, as well as Hemphill and Harris as her struggling parents, and Sherman who is especially strong as the loving but overworked Heidi. There’s excellent support from Kieserman whose Connor becomes something of a voice of conscience for Evan; from Costantini as the sarcastic Jared; and Harris as the ambitious, somewhat bossy Alana. It’s a superb ensemble, surrounding Anthony’s tour-de-force performance with strong characterizations, vocals, and energy.

Dear Evan Hansen is a show that strikes me as a good basis for an ethics discussion, as it raises so many issues of what can happen when one small untruth spirals into something much, much bigger. It’s easy to think about something when you’re not in the middle of it, but what happens when things get out of control? Also, what is the role of peer pressure and viral social media culture in all this? This is a show that leaves a lot to think about, and to talk about. It’s also a showcase for a dynamic, remarkable lead performance and a stellar supporting cast. This Evan Hansen is definitely worth hearing from.

Steven Christopher Anthony, John Hemphill, Claire Rankin, Stephanie La Rochelle
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Dear Evan Hansen National Tour

 

The National Tour of Dear Evan Hansen is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 3, 2019

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If/Then
Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greif
The Fox Theatre
March 15, 2016

Jackie Burns (center) and Cast of If/Then Photo by Joan Marcus If/Then National Tour

Jackie Burns (center) and Cast of If/Then
Photo by Joan Marcus
If/Then National Tour

I think most people have “what if” moments in their lives. Maybe it’s that class in college that you wish you had taken, or that person whose invitation you wish you had accepted. How would your life have been different if you had made one simple choice differently? The musical If/Then, currently on stage at the Fox Theatre, takes questions like that and makes a story out of them–or more precisely, two stories running concurrently.  It’s an intriguing concept that’s been given an inventive production, based on the Broadway staging. It’s not always easy to follow, but it’s an impressive production, and extremely entertaining.

If/Then‘s central figure is Elizabeth (Jackie Burns), who is seen wondering about a particular day in New York City’s Central Park. Having just returned to the city to start over after a failed marriage and 12 years out West, Elizabeth is presented with a dilemma–two friends, and which one to follow. Does she stay in the park with her new neighbor Kate (Tamyra Gray), or does she leave to join her former college boyfriend Lucas (Anthony Rapp) in a protest he’s organizing? The show presents both scenarios side-by-side, with Elizabeth going by the nickname “Liz” when she stays with Kate, and by “Beth” when she goes with Lucas. The name difference actually helps the audience to follow the plot, as Elizabeth’s life verges in potentially confusing directions, and the two timelines both feature some of the same characters but also others who are unique to one particular path. Most importantly in the “Liz” plot is Josh (Matthew Hydzik), a doctor just returned from a military tour overseas, who becomes her love interest in that plot while in the “Beth” plot, she accepts a high-powered city planning job and becomes involved in more complicated personal relationships. There isn’t much else I can say about the story that won’t spoil it, but I will say that the fates of Elizabeth’s friends are also affected by the divergence in her own paths, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

This isn’t an entirely original idea. There have been a few movies and stories with similar concepts, but this one has the team responsible for one of my favorite modern musicals, Next to Normal, behind it, and that definitely got my attention. Still, the music here isn’t as memorable as it is in Next to Normal, and the story can be hard to follow at times. I can’t even name many of the songs after seeing the show without having to consult the program. The show also seems to be suggesting a “moral” that is somewhat problematic, although explaining that in too much detail would spoil the ending. I’ll just say that one of the endings seems happier based on whether love or career is put first in Elizabeth’s life.

The casting is solid, with strong performances from the leads and the ensemble. Burns is a likable protagonist, with a strong, belty voice that’s occasionally too reminiscent of her Broadway and tour predecessor Idina Menzel. Still, Burns portrays both the “Liz” and “Beth” sides of Elizabeth’s story well, and her chemistry with Hydzik’s amiable, charming Josh is particularly convincing. Gray is full of energy and confidence as Kate, and she’s supported well by Janine DiVita as Kate’s girlfriend, Anne. Anthony Rapp, reprising his Broadway role as Lucas, is strong in both timelines, one of which gets him a kind doctor boyfriend named David (Marc Delacruz). Lucas, in fact, probably has the most significant change depending on the timeline, and Rapp portrays these differences well. There’s also a strong ensemble portraying various characters in support of both timelines.

Staging-wise, this show makes  strong visual impression, but also somewhat generic. The set, designed by Mark Wendland, is a modular collection of beams, bridges, and modular set pieces that move about as needed, with a great use of projections designed by Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully, especially in the suggestion of moving Subway trains. The park setup is more “general park” than Central Park, really, and the costumes, by Emily Rebholz, are suitably New York-ish. It’s a somewhat generalized version of New York that works for the show, but isn’t particularly distinctive.

Overall, I would say If/Then is interesting and entertaining, although it tends to be a little confusing as well. It’s not as brilliant or memorable as Next to Normal, but it’s a good concept and generally well presented. Most of all, the great cast is what makes this show worth seeing. Your life probably won’t change radically if you choose not to see it, but it if you do, it would be a good choice.

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast Photo by Joan Marcus If/Then National Tour

Tamyra Gray, Jackie Burns, Anthony Rapp and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
If/Then National Tour

The National Tour of If/Then runs at the Fox Theatre until March 27, 2016.

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