In a busy Broadway season, particularly for musicals, here are some of the best new works vying for attention in a crowded field:
Dear Evan Hansen – Evan Hansen, the eponymous teen of a fresh and startlingly original new musical, is an awkward misfit, all but invisible to his fellow high school students. So he would seem an unlikely subject on which to base a musical, a genre that virtually demands larger-than-life characters. But the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – Oscar winners already this year for La La Land – understand that the fidgety, soft-spoken Evan brims with emotions inside his head. And that, in addition to a story of a lie that goes viral, makes for a powerful, gut-wrenching musical.
The title refers to letters that Evan’s therapist suggests he write to himself, pep talks about becoming more social. But when a bullying neighbor named Connor takes one of those letters and it is found on him after he commits suicide, it appears that he and Evan were secret friends. Evan does nothing to correct this impression, since it gains him attention from Connor’s attractive sister, Zoe. And thanks to social media, the basis of David Korin’s kinetic set design and Peter Nigrini’s projections, Evan becomes an online celebrity, an undeserved status which seems likely to backfire on him.
In addition to Pasek and Paul, whose pop contemporary score is full of such heart-on-sleeve solos as “Waving Through a Window,” “You Will Be Found and Words Fail,” the show boasts a searing book by Steven Levenson, making his Broadway debut.
The material is sturdy enough to sustain cast changes, but it seems unlikely that subsequent performers can better Ben Platt’s angst-ridden Evan, a role he has been honing for three years, through developmental engagements at Arena Stage and off-Broadway’s Second Stage. Much of the cast has been with the show since its inception, including Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s perplexed mother, who scores with the quiet, yet devastating penultimate number, “So Big/So Small.” Dear Evan Hansen should speak to all ages – teens, parents and anyone who has ever felt like a misfit – and, yes, you will want to bring Kleenex.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN, Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., $129-$189. 212-239-6200.
Come From Away – Don’t you hate it when unexpected guests drop by? Perhaps you do not hail from Gander, Newfoundland, the tiny, remote Canadian town of 9,000 hospitable souls who welcomed some 7,000 unintended visitors when their airplanes were diverted away from the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Such an event has inherent dramatic potential, but its development as a musical seemed far-fetched. Still, Come From Away, a Canadian import to Broadway, is being embraced by theatergoers who leave the Schoenfeld Theatre with a song on their lips, having received a lesson in mass hospitality by our neighbors to the north, at a time when our own government is in the throes of wall-building xenophobia.
Basing the show on interviews with the Gander townies and the passengers of a New York-bound flight from Europe, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s script and Irish folk music-tinged score put a face on the aftermath of 9/11. Still, those devastating terrorist attacks take a decided back seat to feeding, clothing and housing these tired, scared, disoriented people that “come from away.”
The cast of 12, each playing multiple roles, come in all shapes, sizes and colors, a talented ensemble – Why isn’t there a Tony Award for best ensemble? – that director Christopher Ashley moves with ease around a mostly bare stage, except for a faux forest of Canadian woods and the rocking band led by Ian Eisendrath.
There isn’t a weak link in the company, but since most of the musical numbers are choral, there are few opportunities for individuals to stand out. You will, however, notice Jenn Colella as the American Airlines pilot who sings of her career history in “Me and the Sky” and Q. Smith playing the mother of a missing firefighter, singing a mournful “I Am Here.”
Leave your cynicism outside and come enjoy proof that unalloyed goodness exists in the world, that human connection can be made in the face of loss.
COME FROM AWAY, Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., $79.50 – $177. 212-239-6200.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 – Leading the Tony Awards race with 12 nominations is this puckish adaptation of a 70-page sliver of that “complicated Russian novel where everyone’s got nine different names,” Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. War is mostly offstage here, in favor of a romantic triangle among the two title characters, the long-suffering Pierre (Josh Groban), the radiant, regal Natasha (Denee Benton) and preening cad Anatole (Lucas Steele).
Fortunately, there is little need to brush up on your Tolstoy, but lean in and listen carefully as the lyrics by Dave Malloy are full of exposition and character identification. And even if you get lost later, just let director Rachel Chavkin’s ravishing production wash over you with its densely packed, but playful tone.
Rarely has a Broadway theater been so transformed into an environmental space akin to an opulent Russian supper club. Cast members scurrying about, across catwalks, through a meandering path of theatergoers and up into the balcony. If the show trades internal character motives for sheer pageantry, it is a swap worth making, particularly with the imaginative scenic retrofit by Mimi Lien.
Groban makes his Broadway debut (through July 2) for added box office, but his is hardly a star role since he disappears frequently below stage level to commune with his accordion. That leaves the spotlight to Denton, pining away in a shimmering white Paloma Young gown, tempted by the seductive ways of Steele’s Anatole.
Chances are you will be swept away more by the physical production and the performances than by the disjointed story line, but there is no denying that Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is unlike anything else on Broadway.
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 49th St., $57 – $189. 212-239-6200.
Anastasia – One of the great real-life mysteries is whether the young daughter of the imperial Russian Romanovs escaped with her life when the family was brutally murdered by the revolutionary Bolsheviks in 1918. That improbable, but romantic notion inspired two films – the 1956 Ingrid Bergman drama and the far lighter toned animated feature from 1997. Both films are the source of a new enchanting stage musical which tries to split the difference between the two works. It largely works, though occasionally showing its roots.
The film’s composer and lyricist – Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens – enlisted their Ragtime adapter Terrence McNally to take a more serious approach to the tale, easily done by eliminating a fictional villain character based loosely on Rasputin. Flaherty and Ahrens expanded their lush, orchestral score and found relative newcomer Christy Altomare as the conflicted, amnesiac young woman who may really be the lost Anastasia, who sings it with power to spare.
She falls in with Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton), a pair of brazen con men, who begin coaching her in what she will need to know to convince the Empress Dowager (Mary Beth Peil) of her authenticity. This proves an easy task, because along the way the girl begins thinking she really is Anastasia or, maybe, she actually is.
In any event, off they go from St. Petersburg to Paris to meet the empress, a trip that is worth the price of admission thanks to stunning, perspective-shifting projections of train travel by Aaron Rhyne. Assets in support are Caroline O’Connor as a randy aide to the empress and Ramin Karimloo as a military officer intent on preventing Anastasia’s reunion, but neither is all that crucial to the story line.
Reviews of Anastasia were mixed, but the family audience I saw the show with connected with it enthusiastically. There is enough mainstream entertainment here that director Darko Tresnjak and his cast may just have a hit on their hands.
ANASTASIA, Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., $69 – $169. 212-239-6200.