Reviews: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Gets a Taylor Trensch Makeover; The Magic of ‘Flight’
The Daily Beast
March 3, 2018
‘Dear Evan Hansen’
A second visit to the multi-Tony winning Dear Evan Hansen, for the occasion of Taylor Trensch taking over the title role from breakout star Ben Platt (and brilliant Trensch is), reminds you how incredibly perverse this musical is.
Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Michael Greif and a winner of six Tony Awards in 2017, focuses on the aftermath of a teen suicide.
Throughout the show, it remains unclear why the character of lank-haired, quietly menacing Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), who commits suicide, does so. Yet it is the suicide of this character that sets the musical in queasy motion. Of course, many suicides are mysterious—and extremely painful for being so inexplicable. It’s just that Dear Evan Hansen uses one as a plot device, after we have met that character. It makes little dramatic sense, and then becomes the engine of the show.
Evan makes everything around Connor’s suicide a lie, because of a prescribed-by-shrink self-affirming letter he writes to himself in the third person. Connor’s parents believe the letter was from their son to Evan, as it was found with him. (It wasn’t. Connor was blackmailing Evan with it.) Not only is their son’s suicide a mystery, it then becomes the lie of a deluded teenager.
From here on, Evan is in a desperate, ever crazier spin trying to maintain the lie they were friends—to maintain their parents’ belief in the innate goodness of their son, and to secure the affections of Connor’s sister Zoe (a crisp and pointedly suspicious-then-sweet Laura Dreyfuss).
Get ready for that toe-tapper—with head-banging, jiving choreography by Danny Mefford—about making up an online life for a dead kid, and an online relationship with a dead kid, because you can’t face telling his parents that you weren’t friends. And get ready for that toe-tapper to include the dead kid returned as a ghost.
The rest of the original Dear Evan Hansen cast are still in place, and perhaps it says something about time, habit, and performance, but all their performances seem sharper and more defined than this time a year ago, when they opened on Broadway.
Trensch as Evan is nervier and slighter than Platt. (You seriously worry for him when Connor pushes him over early on.) Yet, for as puppyish and lost as Evan looks, he’s also acting as something of a weirdo, if not a sociopath. This the musical skirts in favor of farce.
It is not just Connor’s suicidal feelings that go unclarified in the production; so does whatever the psychological illness that Evan has. We discover how desperate it has left him feeling, and we also see in her feeling performance the effects of it on his single mother, Heidi (Tony winner Rachel Bay Jones), whose big song in Act II offsets her nervy attempts to find a way to connect Evan preceding it.
The musical sounds a lot lighter than its dark inclinations. This is really about broken children, and broken adults trying to keep them as safe and loved as they can even as the broken children break even harder in front of them.
You will be aware of much crying and sniffling around you, and this is down to the specificity of the writing of both book (Steven Levenson) and songs (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, with orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire). The songs are not just about grief and loss but about more difficult feelings, like ambivalence about a loved one’s death, as Zoe feels about Connor, who was relentlessly cruel to her. The musical has a lot of jagged edges and unresolved feelings that stay unresolved and hidden in its hummable songs.
Michael Park as Connor’s dad is particularly piercing, bonding cautiously with Evan, who has never had a dad. Jennifer Laura Thompson as Mike’s desolate mother clings to Evan, and cooks for him. This part-confected family grouping needs each other, even if that need is based on a lie.
Evan also needs Jared (Will Roland), the most asshole-ish co-conspirator a nervous schemer could ever wish for. His glee at inventing an email relationship between Evan and Connor, and his reminders to Evan about the perversity of his project, are a welcome lightening of the musical’s mood and necessary winks to us from the writers and producer that yes, this is all very strange.
Around the characters loom screens of scrolling messages and online frenzies, effectively designed by David Korins, sparked by Evan and Connor’s story. Alana (Kristolyn Lloyd), a high school high-achiever, is as swept up in its wake as anyone else, and—like Evan and like everyone—seeks to make more out of a connection to Connor in death than she ever shared in life.
The musical is as much a satire of internet pile-ons and social media grief huddles as it is about confused youth. The absurdity just keeps getting bigger, and as Connor’s story becomes a huge phenomenon, Evan becomes more scared about telling the truth.
Trensch’s skill is to transition in a blink from tormented teen, his body contorted like a pretzel, to the belting Broadway star (he previously played Barnaby Tucker in the Bette Midler Hello, Dolly!). One doesn’t invalidate the other. But his astonishing singing voice reminds you why he is on stage. The ending of the show feels rushed. You wonder if everything would be resolved so neatly after, well, all that.
But by then, if you are not crying or feeling a little stunned, you might also be delighted to see such a fine company acting and singing up such a storm.
You wonder not just at their energy, but also at their accomplished commitment to making Dear Evan Hansen plausible. They pare the extremity of the show back to the basics of broken children and flawed but fundamentally good parents; they make the characters believable and close. And Trensch is so good he deserves to leave the show as much of a breakout star as Platt, who—as good timing would have it—secured his first lead film role on the same day as Trensch’s opening night.
It is fitting that Flight should be at the McKittrick Hotel, New York home most famously of Sleep No More. Like Sleep No More, Flight is its own work of particular wonder, and please do all you can to go and see it. It is a story of migration, an escape to a better life of two orphaned brothers from Afghanistan, the older Aryan and younger Kabir.
You only hear rather than see the actors: Farshid Rokey as Aryan and Nalini Chetty as Kabir. You sit in a darkened booth and watch the action unfold in front of you in a series of boxes and tableaux populated by miniature models (Rebecca Hamilton is the lead model designer, conveying so much on such small figures), with crisp narration by Emun Elliott.
Everything works in smooth tandem. Simon Wilkinson’s lighting within the boxes and tableaux helps move us through night and day, whole continents, the expanses of mountains, sparkling sea, and suddenly a door opens a crack and there is a sliver of light aimed right at you.
Flight is visually stunning and incredibly powerful as a story, as we follow the boys from the mountains of Afghanistan through Greece and Italy, France, and then finally, will they make it to London?
The stories of Aryan and Kabir are fictional, but an amalgam of stories that journalist Caroline Brothers amassed from interviewing real-life refugees and asylum seekers across Europe, in preparation for her novel Hinterland.
Oliver Emanuel sensitively adapted Brothers’ work into the play, directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, co-artistic directors of Scottish theater company Vox Motus.
You hear the boys’ story through a pair of headphones, and it is not just voices in Mark Melville’s all-surrounding soundscape, but the whoosh of waves, the blur of traffic, and the awful sound of seagulls, which are imagined as the threatening authorities. There is even the heroic spirit guide of Bruce Willis, and if you ever wondered how Die Hard should look as a model, wonder no longer.
The sensation is truly immersive. At one moment you really do feel as if you are being battered by the ocean waves as the boys’ boat is; or playing football with them; or having a random encounter with a bunch of rich young women from America, keen to buy them colorful sneakers.
You see the boys peering through a cake shop’s window in Paris, you feel their desperation as they face all manner of exploitation. There is terror and there is joy, and there is also the affirmation of a quest, a desire for better, of sheer grit and determination—and the piercing realization that such journeys have one kind of tragedy at their beginning and sometimes another quite different one at their end. And even after all that, the quest continues.