Sunday, February 5, 2017

Album Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN (Broadway Cast Recording)

Of the emerging generation of composers, few have achieved the same sheer variety of accomplishments as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. After exploring the pop-rock sensibility that permeates much new musical theatre with their work on shows like Edges and Dogfight, they took a considerable turn with A Christmas Story, their musical adaptation of the film by the same name, where they drew from a decidedly more traditional bag of tricks in their catchy and warm score. Now, in the same year they contributed lyrics to the hit film La La Land, we get Dear Evan Hansen, a return to pop-rock composition that showcases a newfound artistic maturity in the young composing team. 

The plot of the show is intricate and deep, but suffice to say that it all revolves around a teenager named Evan Hansen who suffers from crippling social anxiety. A few chance encounters and big lies unexpectedly land Evan in a journey that turns him into a beacon of hope, a surrogate son for a heartbroken family, and a viral sensation. This all leads to his downfall and, ultimately, his transformation. 

A small cast carries this powerful musical, which feels like a close cousin to shows like Next to Normal or Fun Home; shows which zero in on the richer details of the human experience. It treats its subject matter (suicide, grief, mental health, parenthood, teenage-hood, social media) and its subjects (contemporary young people and their parents struggling in the world today) with a great deal of respect and complexity. 

This cast recording is by no means a capture of the entire show. There is much of the book and plot missing from the album that won't be found until you see the show. But for a show that I assume is quite heavy in book scenes, the decision to basically just capture the songs make sense. We do get some delicious tastes of Steven Leveson's insightful and energetic book, passages of dialogue that contextualize some of the songs. But don't expect to come away from the album alone with the full story. 

That's okay though, because these are some outstanding songs. The brief but energized opener, Anybody Have a Map?, pulls us economically into the story and specifically, the perspectives of the two mothers we focus on in the story. While Jennifer Laura Thompson is sadly underused, Rachel Bay Jones as Evan's mom Heidi is used to dynamic and ultimately heart-ripping effect, especially with her devastating So Big/So Small which feels totally naked even in album format. In this song, Pasek and Paul capture the experience of divorce with uncanny emotional insight. 

The same holds true for most of the score, where the lyrics are quite revealing and tap into emotional truths with simplicity. Not only that, but this same quality is present in the music itself: carefully constructed melodies that fit the words on top of them like a glove. 

Examples include the punk-rock drive of Good For You, which bleeds with rage and hurt; the-now famous Waving Through a Window which offers an exciting yet patient and poetic glance at what it means to be an outsider; For Forever, a touching reminiscence (no matter how invented, in the story's context) with a floating melody that soon catches a breeze and soars; Sincerely Me, with a snappy melody that guides its whip-fast comedic edge; and You Will Be Found, a powerful and important anthem that digs palpably into your gut. 

Orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire, the score sounds familiar yet fresh, an acoustic pop-rock sound permeating each song carried exceptionally by a game cast.The stand-out performance is Ben Platt as Evan Hansen. In a somewhat scaled-back performance for album preservation, Platt is still nonetheless affecting and gets a satisfying amount of opportunity to show off his impeccably-trained instrument. Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe, Evan's love interest, squeezes your heart, while Michael Park as Zoe's father paints a portrait of a strong but flawed authority figure. Mike Faist's Connor and his bright tenor are memorable, and Will Roland is hilariously snarky as Evan's only friend Jared. 

It's no surprise that Dear Evan Hansen is the darling of the Broadway season: it has universal appeal and resonance, specifically in its sensitive portrait of the lives of young people. Teenagers and once-teenagers will find a lot to connect with in this musical, which represents the strongest, most indelible work to date by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. 

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