Stage Struck Review

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Powerful “Dear Evan Hanson”: Ethics and Angst in the Digital Age


L-R: Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen,’ Aaron Lazar as ‘Larry Murphy,’ Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Maggie McKenna as ‘Zoe Murphy’ in the First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles

When news hit that the Tony-winning “Dear Evan Hansen” was headed for L.A. on its first national tour, a dash for tickets seeming mildly reminiscent of the “Hamilton” frenzy began. Such enthusiasm can spark a certain amount of skepticism from someone like me, who has seen a goodly share of musicals come and go. Even a Tony only means it was the best that year on Broadway, not necessarily that it will stand the test of time.

I needn’t have worried. This is a musical for the next generation: youthful isolation, the economic divide, the power of social media to empower or increase that isolation or make a lie seem true, all of these have a place in “Dear Evan Hansen.” What proves remarkable is how well this material is woven together into a touching, warm and real piece of musical expression. Yes, it is deeply emotional, and yes, that is just fine.

Evan Hansen is a self-conscious, awkward, and lonely teenager walking into his senior year of high school. When – under pressure from his worried single mom, and his therapist – he writes a supposedly encouraging letter (though it turns out not to be) to himself and prints it out in the school computer lab, an angry, tormented bully swipes it. When that bully then kills himself with the letter in his pocket, it is taken as a suicide note addressed to Evan, and a fiction begins that gradually changes Evan’s life.

Much of what makes this work is Ben Levi Ross’s Evan. With a strong, yet youthful voice and a remarkable sense of the physical awkwardness which defines Evan’s world, he manages to become complex and vulnerable and mature as the show goes along. Marrick Smith, as Connor, the bully, is able to shift from tormented and angry young man to Evan’s interior alter-ego, again in subtle changes of vocal tone and physical carriage.

Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll, as Connor’s heartbroken and vulnerable parents, and Jessica Phillips, as Evan’s sometimes desperate, loving mother, offer the balance of adult perspectives in this tale. Jared Goldsmith as the tech geek and Phoebe Koyabe as the pushy planner provide the outsiders who fall into or help expand Evan’s increasing online life, giving focus to the immediacy of the teenage experience. As Connor’s conflicted sister and the object of Evan’s yearning, Maggie McKenna provides the general skepticism which grounds the story.

Yet all these serve the larger production, as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs drive the piece and wrench the heart, telling Steven Levenson’s story. Director Michael Grief has molded a technological staging to match the ever-present media which powers Evan’s rise and fall, and illustrate the runaway quality of anything posted on the ‘net. David Korins, as set designer, and Japhy Weideman’s projections bring that online world into the physical reality of the stage in fascinatingly immersive ways.

Austin Cook, as music director, directs an onstage band of power and presence. The songs themselves, especially those which essentially end each act – the powerful “You Will Be Found” which leaves few dry eyes in the the audience, and the gently loving reassurance of family in “So Big/So Small” tie together a piece rooted in emotional connection, and in the ways in which those connections fail and can be mended.

“Dear Evan Hansen” will move you. That is a given. It is for and about a generation musicals rarely work to reach. If you know young people who were thrilled by “Hamilton,” let them see this and recognize, if not themselves then people they have known along the way. It is that kind of show, and its not-completely-happy ending still resonates hope, growth and wisdom.

Note that Stephen Christopher Anthony plays Evan on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees, and Sunday evening performances.

What: “Dear Evan Hansen”  When: through November 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m and 8 p.m., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 2 p.m. Wednesday, November 21 to compensate for no evening performance on November 22 (Thanksgiving Day) Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles’ Music Center  How Much: $99 – $285  Info: 213-972-4400 or



Chekhov For Laughs! – Christopher Durang’s great, comic “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning  “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Kristine Nielsen, Christine Ebersole and Mark Blum in Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Christopher Durang’s plays have always been remarkable for their unique combination of wry humor, human insight and respect for the craft of theater itself – the things you can do with a play you can’t as easily do in any other medium. He also makes fun of his own genre with as much artfulness as is possible to mount, which I first encountered in the 1981 one-act “An Actor’s Nightmare”, and now in his terrifically funny, Tony-winning send-up of Anton Chekhov, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Now at the Mark Taper Forum, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” smashes together the most telling elements from any number of Chekhovian works, and transplants it to the modern U.S., where it all begins to appear fairly ridiculous. In the process, the play makes fun of the film industry, bad writing, Disney, and any number of other things, ending up so full of cultural references that they alone makes the show roaringly comical. For the Chekhov aficionado, and I admit to being one, the production actually is (and usually I hate using this term, as it is so often misapplied) absolutely hysterical at times.

Vanya, Sonia and Masha are the now-aging children of college professors who named them after Chekhovian characters. While Masha has been off becoming a famed film star, Vanya and Sonia have stayed behind in their Bucks County home. There they nursed their parents through their final years, but then ended up staying on unsure of how to proceed. Now, Sonia reflects on her empty life and her status as the adopted child, making an occupation out of negativism and despair. Vanya quietly longs for companionship, and mourns the treasures of youth.

David Hull appalls Kristine Nielsen with a hilarious "reverse strip tease", as Spike [photo: Craig Schwartz]

David Hull appalls Kristine Nielsen with a hilarious “reverse strip tease”, as Spike [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Then Masha comes home for a rare visit, trailing a dim, physically gorgeous young aspiring actor names Spike in her wake. He, in turn, meets the girl visiting next door: Nina, the very young, would-be actress who idolizes Masha even as Masha sees her as a threat. All the while, the cleaning woman, Cassandra, offers up messages of foreboding, in a crazed mix of ancient Greek, voodoo, modern television references and observational wisdom.

And that doesn’t tell you the half of it. Mark Blum’s Vanya has the wistful yearnings of his namesake, a calm which ties the piece together some, and then utters a most delightfully out-of-control Russian-style harangue against modern society with a rich and memorable passion. One will never look at postage stamps, a repeated reference, quite the same way again. Kristine Nielsen proves absolutely brilliant as the morose Sonia, turning her melancholy on and off like a switch, and at one critical point offering up the best Maggie Smith imitation you can imagine – by itself fall-down funny.

Shalita Grant as the wise and weird Cassandra [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Shalita Grant as the wise and weird Cassandra [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Christine Ebersole gives Masha an interesting balance of self-absorbed emotional hyperbole and practical sense, in both verbal and physical presence. David Hull’s hunky young Spike, played as thoroughly for stereotype as possible, makes nice, upbeat, simple contrast to the angsty characters around him, as does Liesel Allen Yeager’s wide-eyed, innocent enthusiasm as Nina. Shalita Grant proves a true treasure as the sharply defined, practical and self-contained Cassandra.

Director David Hyde Pierce builds upon the original direction of Nicholas Martin with the expectedly sure sense of comic timing and contrast. The beautiful coordination of all these very recognizable characters into a single whole which neither neglects the subtle comic nudges nor overdoes a one of them is a wondrous thing in itself. David Korins’ set design creates a very real space for these characters to cling. Costume designer Gabriel Berry gets a special nod for creating exactly the right costume-party costumes at a pivotal moment in the storyline.

Indeed, what proves most lovely and relaxing about “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” has to be the sheer quality of every aspect of the thing. Acting, writing, directing, and every visual component work together to create a single moment of intelligent wit, filled with satisfying surprises and a few bits of ardent social commentary. In the midst of the upheavals of daily existence, I cannot think of a better way to spend a couple of hours.

What: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” When: Through March 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $90 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

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