Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Broadway's "Dear Evan Hansen" comes to Milwaukee

Mixed feelings, but climbing into the sun

Every so often, a Broadway show comes along that speaks to the present generation. A show that resonates with a powerful, relatable message for the here and now. People lose their minds over such a spectacle because they feel heard and see a glimmers of themselves — their struggles, hopes, fears — reflected in art. For that reason, Dear Evan Hansen is an important piece of theater in 2019. 

The story, which is a true original by book-writer and Tony Award-winner Steven Levenson, isn’t cheerful. But it’s more than what it appears at face value, so keep an open mind. Evan Hansen, a high school senior and anxious outsider, is tasked by his therapist to write a letter to himself detailing why today is going to be a good day. The letter begins “Dear Evan Hansen…”

Evan’s letter falls into the hands of rage-ridden school bully, Connor Murphy, who absconds with the letter to Evan’s chagrin. A few days pass, and we learn that Connor has taken his own life. All that was found on his person: Evan’s letter. Confusion abounds as Connor’s grieving parents bring Evan the letter, assuming these were Connor’s last words to this “Dear Evan Hansen” they’d never heard of before. 

What starts as a misunderstanding turns into a lie Evan tells to help the Murphys cope with their sadness and confusion over the loss of their son. The situation snowballs from there — a string of lies to keep close to Connor’s pretty sister Zoe, a hastily-crafted backlog of fake email correspondence between Evan and Connor, and so on. The question raised: If a lie draws smiles and hope, is that lie such a bad thing? 

Evan’s lies eventually affect much more than the Murphy family. He becomes co-president for The Connor Project, a school organization that goes viral, spreading the message that everyone matters, nobody deserves to be forgotten, and if you fall, you will be found. See? All this good coming from a lie. But you know the other shoe is bound to drop and drop hard. 

To dispell the myth, the themes in this show are more than just mental health and suicide. There’s a lot to do with parenthood, especially motherhood. Between Evan’s mom and Connor’s, one is trying to make ends meet while the other is trying to make sense of her circumstances. There’s the idea of mothers and sons, or children in general, finding their way back to each other and learning how and when to let go. Grief is another theme, bringing to light that we all process tragedy in our own time and manner. 

So can one pack all of this into a musical that works and works well? Dear Evan Hansen won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2017, so that tells you something. Songs with music and lyrics by award-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are certainly memorable, though some more than others. Those “some” — like chart-topping “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever,” and “You Will be Found” — soar incredibly high and have the power to deeply move. It’s wonderful to hear those fan-favorite hymns live. 

Bringing those songs to life on this Evan Hansen tour is Stephen Christopher Anthony. He’s every inch a sympathetic lead and believable nerd — sweaty palmed, fidgety, full of nervous laughter and introverted body language. It’s a brave way to play a leading man, leaning so hard into the “loser” (Evan’s word, not mine). This isn’t one of those teen movies where the geek takes off their glasses to reveal a suddenly-confident bombshell. Anthony embodies an Evan that’s an anxious outsider through and through. 

Somehow, through all this nervous introversion, Anthony also nails the reason we’re all here: the songs. His delivery rarely feels all-out, rather he kind of sings into himself as you’d expect a shy teen to do. How he can effortlessly flow between octaves without belting his lungs out is astonishing. One wonders what his instrument could do if he turned the dial up a few notches. Still, it’s admirable to stay so true to character. Anthony is especially captivating in quiet moments — a credit to his magnetism, even when playing a kid who feels invisible. 

As Connor’s sister Zoe, Stephanie La Rochelle is certainly sweet voiced — so much so, I wish we’d heard more of what her voice could do. Like Anthony, La Rochelle plays a sixteen year-old with lots of realness and subtlety. She too doesn’t seem to be singing all-out, rather she’s often quiet and a little hard to hear. It’s interesting to downplay the drama when the stage and stakes are so big. Whether that’s a purposeful creative choice or the fault of the notoriously dicey sound quality at the Marcus Center, I can’t say. 

For the rest of the cast, they’re strong and don’t disappoint. Interactions between the spirit of Connor (Noah Kieserman) and Evan are especially fun. The set design relies almost entirely on big black projection screens hanging from the ceiling to create depth and dimension. Sometimes the screens are there to set a mood, projected with words or vague imagery. At the best times, these screens become a dynamic part of the action, flooding the stage with light and movement. 

Leaving the theater, I listened hard for the buzz around me. One woman said “fabulous!” The general consensus seemed positive. For me, I enjoyed myself. But I think I was expecting to feel more of an emotional pull than I did. The first act was stronger than the second in both song and feeling — literally a tough act to follow. That said, people love this musical. People are bowled over with emotion, and I’m an emotional person. What am I missing? 

Upon reflection, there are two camps of people who might find Evan Hansen particularly cathartic. One: people who can relate to Evan’s sense of isolation. Two: parents, particularly mothers. I conferred with a new-mom friend of mine who was sitting Orchestra Row H at the same performance as me. She said she came away “obsessed” and that the parents angle really got to her. So maybe there’s something to my theory. 

Either way, this is a musical that speaks to a generation and fills a need for a lot of people. To me, it more so fills a need for a handful of amazing songs to belt in my car. But that doesn’t mean I appreciate Evan Hansen’s existence any less. It’s just that some shows really hit you, while others are left waving through a window. 

The Milwaukee Rep presents "West Side Story"

A must-see revival full of heartbreak and hope 

There's a rumble from the orchestra as the lights dim in the Powerhouse. That rumble brings you into the story — a place, a time, a city. There's anticipation and foreboding. Even if you've seen West Side Story twenty times before — even if you know it's based on Romeo & Juliet and therefore tragedy is imminent — the Milwaukee Rep has succeeded in giving every theater-loving person countless reasons to come out and see it once more.

First up, the leads. To have a really good West Side Story, you need a really good Tony and Maria. Boy has the Rep nailed it with this casting. Jeffrey Kringer's Tony is stunningly sweet-voiced, displaying a seemingly effortless, surging range as smooth and rich as cream. For me, his voice is the one to which all other voices will be compared this Milwaukee theater season. His "Something's Coming'" and "Maria" are the standout solos of the show. He also plays Tony with every ounce of boyish earnestness and hope. To put it plainly, he's cute as can be and you can't help but root for him.

Liesl Collazo as Maria is every inch Kringer's equal. She steals scenes by virtue of her innate radiance — the glint in her hopeful eyes, the fire in her spirit, the singular spark that lights up the stage whenever she's present. She's remarkable. Her voice is a strong soprano — a worthy match for Kringer's tenor. Their chemistry together? Off the charts and into the stratosphere. Collazo and Kringer really sell the love story. The two gaze into each other's eyes with such honesty, it stirs something in you. It's an electric, first-love feeling that engulfs the entire audience.

Then there's choreography by Jon Rua. It's not just Rua's thrilling, eye-popping, pin-pick precise moves, but the execution — somehow both smooth and sharp, heart-racing and entrancing. This is easily some of the best dancing I've ever seen on a Milwaukee stage. In the opening number, the Jet and Shark dancers offer immediate assurance that what will follow will be the highest caliber. During "The Dance at the Gym," the Shark and Jet ladies are looped in, bringing a jolt of female energy, the rush of twirling skirts, and an "I'm feeling myself" air. When it comes time for "Cool," the choreo more than lives up to its name.

Shout outs must be paid to the leaders of rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks. Jacob Burns as Riff is absolute aces. From his attitude to his strong singing voice to his agile moves, Burns is a deserving leader of the Jets. Opposite Riff is Bernardo, played by Jose-Luis Lopez Jr. The two engage in fight choreography by Chuck Coyl — a stand-out, as the action feels natural, high-stakes, and real. There's actual threat behind these dance-fights, and that's a credit to Burns and Lopez Jr. as much as the man behind the moves.

Another praise-worthy performance come courtesy of Courtney Arango as Anita. Fiery and likeable, her strong belting alto is a nice change of pace from Collazo's soprano. Anrango packs a lot of heat and heartbreak into her scenes, doing so with breezy believability. There are also two Milwaukee greats playing smaller parts in this West Side Story: Jonathan Wainwright as Lieutenant Schrank and James Pickering as Doc. Wainwright could play the role of a hard-nosed copper in his sleep, so suffice it to say, he's as great as expected. Pickering's part is even smaller, but he makes it plenty mighty.

One last standout moment and performance comes in Act Two's ballet and "Somewhere." Having only ever seen the movie myself, and so not knowing there even was a ballet sequence in the staged West Side Story, this dreamy sequence served as a wonderful surprise. Drenched in light and hope, this ballet clad in peaceful white is beautiful beyond belief. Carrying the vocals is Hope Endrenyi as Anybodys — powerful, lovely, and sincere. This is heart-soaring stuff. Thank you to Director Mark Clements for collecting all the right pieces and creating moments worth remembering with this West Side Story.

As the house lights flicked back on, it took all my concentration to compose myself. I left the theater searching my brain for the last time I'd been so moved. So bowled over by choreography. So impressed by staging. The last time I was so caught up in the thrill of the action and romance that I kept holding my breath. I know I've felt similarly at other Milwaukee-area productions, but the specifics escape me. All I know is this West Side Story is unforgettable.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow