It’s exciting to see new musicals before they open in New York next spring. I recently saw two of them, “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Bright Star,” and both have a good chance of becoming hits.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is about a depressed and unpopular high school student; his single mom isn’t around much because she’s working and going to school. His psychologist has him write therapeutic letters to himself, letters beginning “Dear Evan Hansen.” He has a crush on a girl who doesn’t know he’s alive, and he’s wearing a cast because he broke his arm. The girl’s brother is a jerk who taunts Evan, prints his name in large letters across Evan’s cast, and takes one of Evan’s letters. Then the girl's brother commits suicide. The parents yearn to know more about a son they never really knew, and assume he and Evan were friends because of the son’s name on the cast and possession of a letter they figure he wrote to Evan. They’re really nice to Evan. They’re the kind, wealthy parents that Evan wishes he had, and the parents of the girl he likes. What to do? Evan wins entrance into the family by lying.
This production, which I saw at the Arena Stage, has great music, story, acting and singing by eight actors. The ninth character is the Internet, which is a constant presence via projections onto backdrops from sites like Facebook and Jumpstart. It’s a musical spotlighting the young generation, with a story that applies to us all. Of special note is the talented actor who plays Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, only 21 years old and already a veteran of both “Pitch Perfect” movies, and “The Book of Mormon” as Elder Cunningham. I wish him a long and productive career.
To celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary, our daughters got us tickets to see “Bright Star,” a musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell at the Kennedy Center. It’s full of Americana music featuring fiddle and banjo, with a plot about a magazine editor and her secret. Here the actress of note is Carmen Cusack, who does a fine job of playing the same character as a southern teenager and as a hardened woman in her 40s. The extra “actor” in this production is the bluegrass music, with musicians almost always visible onstage, sitting in a wood cabin on wheels that gets repositioned along with the scenery. If “Bright Star” replaced one or two songs with a bit more narrative meat it could go far. “Dear Evan Hansen” is already more finely tuned and deserves to receive the same kind of enthusiastic reception in New York that it did here.
Happy New Year to all!