Sound Advice Reviews
Dear Evan Hansen
This Sound Advice column, which reviews recordings of interest to fans of theatre and vocalists now returns from a hiatus. Time to play catch-up on some of the music that was released in the interim. Now, where were we?
If, like me, you'd like to start with the sounds of a hit Broadway show, sitting in a comfy seat, listening intently to Dear Evan Hansen is where "You'll Be Found," to borrow the title of one of its exciting and pithy songs.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
A gripping story about one lie that leads to more lies has many truths to tell us about human nature and our modern technology-obsessed lifestyles, and these truths come through poignantly in the recording of the score of Dear Evan Hansen. The titular teen, played with striking, naked vulnerability by Ben Platt, is an emotion-drenched role that the actor navigates impressively. He keeps our attention and sympathy, even as we may certainly question the character's choices and can be shocked by his solipsistic manner. As a lonely high schooler pulled into a whirlpool of fabrications of his own making, we can understand the driving need for attention and acceptance and then the resulting traps.
Platt's remarkably multi-faceted portrayal and his voice, with its vulnerable high tones and gruffer sounds expressing anguish, makes him consistently captivating. And that's no small achievement with a score that depends on his participation for the lion's share of the songs and that he's given an appropriately limited pallet of language and expression as an awkward, inarticulate boy with stilted social skills. The pain is palpablenot just his, but that of other characters reeling from a tragedy, exacerbated by the web of lies Evan creates. A fantasy of a lovely day, "For Forever," is effective on several levels: it nails the imagined wistfulness; it is rewardingly gentle in Platt's singing; and it heartbreakingly takes full advantage of the drama of those kinds of moments in a play or book when we as observers know the truths the characters being addressed do not yet know.
Collaborating composer-lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are especially skillful in making the songs for the four teen-aged characters sound age-appropriatein vocabulary, colloquialisms, halting rhythms, and explosive bursts of sound. And the cast members inhabiting those roles follow suit: Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe Murphy, Evan's crush; Mike Faist as her brother; and Will Roland and Kristolyn Lloyd as classmates. They and Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan's single mother, are presented as imperfect people, warts and all, making the dramatis personae and their situations believable, rather than slick or simplistic.
The opening musical scene, showing the two households at breakfast time on the first day of school, presents both generations with communication dysfunction. There's no sit-com style shorthand to present adults as either buffoons or serenely in control, and the kids are no angels. Still at a loss for easy answers to Parenting 101, there are no instructions with "Anyone Have a Map?" guiding the pathway to family dynamics success. Jones, who gets a golden opportunity with her solo "So Big/So Small," and the very able and convincing Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park as the Murphys generally are given more thoughtful, wiser language in their numbers. But a volcanic eruption of anger and hurt, "Good for You," has Evan's mom raging at her son, sometimes sharing the same lines as his annoyed friends, unfortunately putting a blot on the otherwise fine division of voicings. Arguably, when adults are hurt and defensive, we are not at our most measured and mature. Perhaps this also justifies a kind of unrelenting cacophony in this vituperative venting.
Even more so, the large chorus echoing and overlapping lines hauntingly to represent Evan's frantic seeking solace and human connection in a couple of sequences is effective, yet hard on the ears. "Waving Through a Window," a deft expression of frustrationand being stymied at mastering needed skills for human connectionis powerful and builds to a soaring climax musically, vocally, and emotionally. While this electric production number could be easily considered the centerpiece of Dear Evan Hanson and is crucial to understanding who the title character is, the score has plenty of other-styled moments that crystallize other events, such as a love song for Platt and Dreyfuss, whose chemistry radiates, that tentatively tip-toes its way to risk and opening up. It's called "Only Us."
Knowing the plot makes all the above, and some throbbing repetition, understandable and logical in context. If you don't know the show (an original plot inspired by an incident at the high school of one of the writers), you won't find a synopsis in the booklet that comes with the physical CD. But you will get color production photos, all the lyrics and included spoken moments of the script by Steven Levenson, who also provides a one-page introduction. For those new to this piece, a little research will go a long way toward clarifying and, thus, fuller appreciation. That being said, the specificity is an accomplishment of character writing and character exploration, but there is so much here where the feelings come through so vividly that one may take the leap to general identification with what is being expressed. Regret, loss, loneliness, sweet blossomings of romantic attraction, a desperate desire to connect in a real way despite the access to the all-too-pale substitutes afforded by social media ... These are pangs and experiences we can all relate to and recall on some level. These well-crafted songs delivered by a committed cast allow catharsis and empathetic identification.
The contrastingly kinetic, busy pop numbers with a decidedly contemporary sound and the sparer, tender confessionals add up to a nicely varied modern score. It's played by an ensemble of just eight musicians, conducted by pianist Ben Cohn, with orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, who produced the recording with the songwriters, (Christopher Hanke is co-credited on Evan's apologetic "Words Fail"). And the complex vocal arrangements and additional arrangements are by Justin Paul. He and partner Benj Pasek, as a still-young team, have another very impressive set of songs here to add to their growing list of accomplished work, joining their Edges, Dogfight, and A Christmas Story as evidence of versatility and heart-on-sleeve expressions. And this is a most theatrical and well performed set of 14 tracks. It's easy to be pulled in and Dear Evan Hanson is satisfying to revisit.