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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 3, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Evan Hansen, Musical Groundhog, High Line Park

It's an odd thing to say, but despite its role as the capital of American left-wing oppression -- though Seattle, Portland, and the whole state of California are vying for the title -- New York City remains the cultural center of the United States.

And even though the days are long gone when Broadway shows were a steady source of enduring popular songs, we still look to Broadway to certify a show as important.

There are ridiculously few new musicals compared to past decades, and now that contemporary pop, hip-hop, and rap are supplanting many older musical traditions in Broadway shows, it seems even less likely for a Broadway musical to produce any song that can reach the public consciousness.

And yet we still go to Broadway. Sometimes kicking and screaming, especially when ridiculous comic-book movies are turned into offensively stupid comic-book musicals.

Anyway, a few years back I simply stopped going.

That's right, a dyed-in-the-wool theatre major and play director like me finally realized: Broadway choruses are the best singers and dancers in the world, but with the star performers in the shows borrowed from television, Grammy broadcasts, and movies, nearly without regard for whether they can actually act and sing well enough for Broadway, it's usually better to see a local production after the Broadway hit has had its run. Cheaper, too.

Or, you know, not see it at all.

And then, a few months ago, my good friend Rusty Humphries invited me to do a few guest spots on his radio show, and in one conversation he began to encourage me to get to New York and see a musical called Dear Evan Hansen.

This wasn't a recommendation. It was a requirement, he said.

Here's the basic storyline: A very timid, anxious high school kid named Evan Hansen is being raised by his divorced mother (Dad walked out half of Evan's life ago); she doesn't have much money, but as a nurse she makes enough, and she gets Evan his anti-anxiety meds and some conversations with a therapist.

The therapist urges Evan to write encouraging letters to himself, letters like, "Dear Evan Hansen, you're going to have a great day." And then a bunch of reasons why, in order to overcome his anxiety and loneliness.

Evan is a good kid. He tries to do what the therapist says because, hey, everybody wants things to go better for him. And his mom wants him to. So he writes a letter.

But he has to finish it at school, and so he prints it out in the media center and before he can pluck it from the printer, another kid grabs it.

The other kid is Connor Murphy, a stringy-haired misfit that everybody assumes is doing drugs. Connor folds up and pockets the letter, and when Evan tries to get it back, Connor knocks him down.

The worst thing about this encounter is that Connor is the older brother of Zoe Murphy, the girl who is the focus of Evan's love life. Pardon me, his imaginary love life. She rates some pretty significant mentions in that Dear Evan Hansen letter.

From the start of the show, Evan has been wearing a bright, clean, unsigned cast on his forearm. He optimistically brought a marker to school but nobody wants to sign it.

Then, out of the blue, Connor Murphy walks up to him, demands the pen, and signs his name -- Connor -- in such huge letters that the name takes up the whole length of the cast.

A couple of days later, Evan gets called out of class and in the principal's office he finds Connor's parents. From Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, Evan learns that Connor took his own life. In his pocket they found a letter addressed, "Dear Evan Hansen," and signed, "Me." Naturally, they assumed the letter was from their dead son, and that he had died without delivering it. Or maybe he meant it to be found.

And there is their son's name signed in huge lettering on Evan Hansen's cast, confirming their impression that Connor and Evan were friends.

Connor had been so angry and anti-social that Mr. and Mrs. Murphy are astonished simply to know that Connor had a friend at all.

Evan tries to tell them the truth, that Evan wrote the letter himself, but the Murphys are so caught up in their interpretation of events that they can't hear what Evan is saying.

One of the main reasons that Evan can't top them with the truth is that Evan's anxiety disorder makes him speak with hesitations followed by almost-unintelligible bursts of clever but oblique conversation. You'd think that such a speech pattern would become annoying, but quite the contrary, the actor playing Evan Hansen -- Ben Platt -- is so brilliant in his delivery that we soon find it endearing. And we almost never miss a word.

Soon Evan Hansen finds himself nearly adopted by the Murphys. It's obvious to him and everyone else that the Murphys cling to Evan in order to build up a story for themselves that they did not fail with Connor, that Connor really did have a friend who cared about him and who had good memories of their time together. Even though Evan had to invent those "good times" out of hints he gathered from things the family said.

The whole story goes on as you might expect, the lies growing bigger as other people attach themselves to the story in order to amuse or benefit themselves. Evan Hansen isn't the only high school kid who thinks that nobody knows he exists.

Along the way, Zoe attaches to Evan because she hated and feared Connor and Evan's stories include how much Connor actually loved her. (Mostly because his Dear Evan Hansen letters keep mentioning how much he loves her.)

With this storyline, it should be obvious that eventually the truth has to come out. In the TV sitcom version of this, some reporter would find out the truth and blab it everywhere. But Dear Evan Hansen is a brilliant script and author Steven Sevenson knew that the only good climax would be for Evan to tell the truth himself, to the family.

So that's what happens. Evan blurts and hesitates and blurts again, but the story comes out, filled with his shame and self-loathing, but also with his feelings about the Murphy family, how much he loved being with parents who were still together, a family that loved each other.

This version of the Murphys is far from the truth of what they were while Connor was alive, but it has become the truth of who the family has become under the influence of Evan Hansen -- whose affection for them was real even if the actual story of him and Connor as friends was false.

There are very important revelations and characters I haven't even mentioned, and I'm not going to, because even though they're important in the show, they're not important as you're making your decision whether to make the pilgrimage to Broadway to see this musical.

And yes, it is a musical. Usually the word "musical" is paired with "comedy," and there are many funny moments in Dear Evan Hansen. But I also cried pretty much constantly because despite having the kind of plot where if one person told anybody else the truth, there'd be no story, the stage is thick with truth and pain, hope and despair from beginning to end.

It's a musical drama. It would be a powerful play with these actors saying these words, even if there weren't a note of music.

But there is music, and every performer sings gorgeously.

The miracle of this show, however, is the performance of Ben Platt. I have directed a lot of plays, my friends, and I have worked with superb actors as well as eager newcomers (and some of those newcomers were among the superb).

I've also seen powerful, soul-lifting performances (as well as some lazy, phoned-in ones) on Broadway, in London's West End, and in Los Angeles and Greensboro and in various regional theaters.

So even though I know I'm making a claim so extravagant that I can hardly expect you to believe it, I'm going to say it anyway, because it's true:

Ben Platt, as Evan Hansen, gives the best acting and singing performance I have ever see on any stage, anywhere. He has excellent material to work with, but when it comes down to it, I can't think of a living human being who could have given so generous and powerful and skilled a performance as this one by Ben Platt.

First, he takes the quirky, neurotic way that Evan talks and turns it into an asset throughout the show.

Second, those speech patterns flow into the songs, so that whether he's speaking or singing, he's the same character.

Third, he pours every ounce of this teenage character's pain and loneliness into the emotional content of the role, so that he spends a lot of the show weeping -- in grief, in shame, in rage, in dread, in despair -- and yet he goes from fullout crying into singing glorious high notes without a moment of recovery.

That can't actually be done. So because the singing is real, I can only conclude that we merely think we're seeing fullout crying, when in fact we're seeing superb acting that makes us believe that's what we saw.

After Evan blurts out his agonizing confession to the Murphys, he sits in an overstuffed chair with his body in a question-mark posture. I have never seen so much misery on a human face as he listens to the Murphys respond, in their anger and grief at find out that this whole story they spun out is a lie.

Ben Platt does nothing in that chair. He doesn't twitch. He never steals from the other actors, not a moment. In fact, when you look at him -- as you must, often, during this scene -- his gaze always throws you back to the other actors.

So that besides giving a perfect representation of grief and regret and loss, Ben Platt is also an exemplary actor, sharing the audience's attention with the rest of the cast.

And the rest of the cast deserves it. Everybody is wonderful in their parts, even those whose characters are often selfish and obnoxious.

One of the best of those actors is Mike Faist, who plays Connor Murphy.

Now, you'd think that because Connor kills himself very early in the play, there wouldn't be much for him to do. Faist is strong enough that even if we never saw him after his suicide, we'd remember him.

But because the writing is so good, we do see him. Because Evan carries on a conversation with Connor throughout the play. Not the real Connor, of course -- this isn't a fantasy -- but with Evan's imaginary version of Connor. And from Connor he conjures up advice that helps him make decisions until finally he closes the door on Connor entirely. Through it all, Mike Faist is wonderfully real and compelling.

So are all the others. I don't think I've ever seen a better ensemble cast.

At the end of this show, I saw something I didn't think I'd ever see again: a genuine standing ovation.

You know how standing ovations usually go. The audience starts clapping at the end; some of the actors come out on stage to begin the curtain call. Then a few people stand up, then a few more, and pretty soon, if you want to see the curtain call, you have to stand up.

But in fact most people started out their applause perfectly content to do it sitting down.

This is what I call a forced standing O.

Dear Evan Hansen got, from that Tuesday night audience, a real standing ovation. The entire audience, almost as one, leapt to their feet the moment they started applauding. There was no reluctance, no dragging. Just a spontaneous expression of joy and admiration and gratitude to the actors and musicians who had performed so splendidly.

If you're the kind of person who likes to watch plays and movies or read books with emotional detachment in order to keep a critical view, then Dear Evan Hansen will be a horrible experience for you. Either because it will rip away all that detachment and tear your heart out, or because you will preserve your emotional distance and so the entire play will be wasted on you.

Even now, a week after seeing it, when I think about or talk about Dear Evan Hansen the emotions come rushing back again. There are key moments that I haven't mentioned which even now, in memory, have the power to devastate me emotionally.

So maybe you're already thinking: I'll make sure to see that when a local community theatre group puts it on. Or a high school. Or a university. Or a touring company brings it to Greensboro.

And by all means, if you haven't seen it by the time one of those shows is put on, the script will still be wonderful and the music will still be powerful and the acting may be adequate or even good, so go for it.

But if you possibly can -- by, for instance, canceling one summer's beach-house rental -- spend the money and the time to get to New York, stay in a hotel, and see Dear Evan Hansen while Ben Platt is still playing the lead role.

http://dearevanhansen.com/#tickets

That's the official website, and you can get tickets for as little as $119 each. Or if you want seats closer to the actors -- which I recommend -- you can spend double or nearly triple that. Remember -- compare it to the cost of renting a beach house and water vehicles, and New York City with good seats at Dear Evan Hansen may well look like a bargain.

I warn you that, having once seen a perfect performance of a powerful musical drama, it may spoil you for all other plays, ever.

Worth it.

*

Since we had planned for three full days in Manhattan, we got tickets for another Broadway show, Groundhog Day: The Musical.

Even though Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell are among my least favorite actors, the script and direction of the film Groundhog Day make it one of my favorite movies of all time. Most years, I get together with good friends to watch it yet again, so I know where all the best bits are, and I can join in reciting most of the best lines.

So what could be better than to adapt Groundhog Day into a musical comedy?

The easy answer: not adapting Groundhog Day into a musical comedy.

But who knows? My wife and I went to the show with considerable optimism. After all, if I can love the movie even with actors that generally leave me wishing I were eating a popsicle on a park bench in Minnesota in winter instead of watching them perform, why not assume that I might love the Broadway musical?

First, I must say that the performers in the musical version are fine. While most of them have little to actually do, they do that little as well as I can imagine it being done.

Everything depends, in the musical, on the actor playing Phil Connors, and this is the one thing the makers of this musical comedy got absolutely right. Andy Karl looked familiar to us -- he played Mike Dodds, the commissioner's son, on fifteen episodes of Law & Order: SVU in 2016, where he was very good.

Phil Connors, the singin' dancin' weatherman trapped in a time loop until he turns into a mensch, is pretty much the opposite role, and Andy Karl has the chops. Since he never broke into song during his stint at SVU, his excellent Broadway voice came as a complete surprise. And he delivered the lines as well as they could possibly be delivered.

Here's the problem: Groundhog Day isn't actually on that stage. Most incidents from the brilliant Danny Rubin/Harold Ramis script are there, kind of. But almost none of the lines.

The jokes and gags and witticisms have all been replaced by duller, dumber, unfunnier replacements, so that we remember, Here's a bit that was funny in the movie, but we also realize, Oh, what a shame, it isn't funny in this version.

I suspect that while the adapters got permission to use the storyline and character names from Groundhog Day, they were barred from using the actual script of the movie, which meant that all the dialogue was off limits.

Whenever they realized (or decided) that the musical could not use lines from the movie, that should have been the death of the project right there.

But it wasn't, and so the people who attend Groundhog Day: The Musical are in for a good/bad experience.

What's good is that the performances are superb and the set is so brilliant, so full of visual gags, that it's almost worth watching the show just to see how a good theatrical stage designer can facilitate and, yes, steal a very difficult show.

I mean, how do you stage all those scenes in and around the tv station van? Here's how: You use a remote-controlled model of the van, roll it out onto the stage (windshield wipers working), and throw fake snow at it. Then you have a bunch of dancers pick up the van and other stuff to create a top-down view of the town, the snow, and the van driving through it. It deserved, and got, enthusiastic applause.

And that's only the beginning of the stuff the set designer got better than right.

The bad part is that the music is nondescript and the script writer did not understand the movie at all. The musical seems to think the story is about Phil Connors coming to love Punxsutawney, the town. And after all, the way Bill Murray becomes a mensch is by developing relationships with all those people, right?

Kind of. But the point of the movie is that Phil has one judge: Rita. If she comes to trust, respect, admire, and then love him, Phil has become the man he needs to be.

In the musical, Phil is made much more vile than Bill Murray's character in the movie. The language of many characters is more foul than anything in the movie, and Phil is written without an ounce of wit or subtlety. He makes grabass moves that he never attempted in the movie. Stage-Phil is about three levels more awful than movie-Phil.

The story might have survived that if we actually experienced any part of his transformation, but we don't.

First, we're not close enough in the theater to catch the facial expressions of the townspeople.

Second, the musical makes room for all the introspective songs ("Here's how I feel about my whole life") by making the scenes too short for us to feel anything.

Instead, the scenes only point to our memories of bits that we really loved in the movie. Instead of experiencing them again in the theater, we simply remember that we once experienced them in the film.

If someone saw Groundhog Day: The Musical without having seen the movie first, I'm not even sure they'd understand what was going on. They would certainly not get any emotional impact from the story because every single scene is only a brief placeholder for the real scene in the movie.

If the music had been wonderful, with a memorable song or two, it might have been worth the tradeoff. But the only memorable tune is Ned Ryerson's insurance jingle. And not in a good way.

My wife and I stayed for the second act only because we knew I was going to write this review -- and because maybe it was the opposite of a Sondheim musical, and only the second act worked.

Nothing worked.

And at the end, it got a reluctant, scattered, then resigned "standing ovation" from the audience.

Maybe some people really liked it.

It was a Wednesday night and the theater was about eighty percent full. That's not embarrassing but it's also not the kind of numbers that indicate a long run.

But it might get a long run because the Broadway audience rarely depends on New Yorkers. Instead, what drives Broadway is the tourist dollar -- people who hear the title Groundhog Day: The Musical and think, I liked that movie, let's go see that show.

That's what's driving the Disney musicals on Broadway, with two key differences: They can use the actual scripts, and the Disney movie originals were already musicals, with actual songs that you can learn and sing. (Also, the Disney musicals have been marked by some superb showmanship, like the puppet work in The Lion King.)

Groundhog Day: The Musical is fun to watch, mostly for the inspired set design and the pleasure of watching Andy Karl earn his Lavender Heart for earnestly saying some of the worst dialogue ever given to an actor to say, when he isn't earnestly singing some of the lamest lyrics.

*

On our third night we ate at the ever-wonderful Gotham Bar & Grill, and then went to see a comedy show at Caroline's. This is a comedy club where many legendary performers once appeared, but what we got was the normal mix: While waiters serving you your two-drink minimum keep getting in your way, you listen to six comedians do five- or ten-minute sets.

You also have to listen past the drunken louts who think they're funnier than the comics on stage. They're always wrong, but the really sad thing was that only one of the comics knew how to deal with the heckling. That was David Angelo, the strongest comic of the night.

But a couple of other comics were also good. Unfortunately, the ones that weren't good were pretty bad.

And as with all comedy shows, the emcee and the comics kept trying to whip up some kind of frenzy of entertainment in the audience.

That doesn't work. Has it ever worked?

Do you know what works up a real frenzy of excitement and involvement in a comedy audience?

Funny stuff on stage.

You know what isn't ever funny on stage? People begging the audience to pretend that they're having more fun than they actually are.

The thing about comedy clubs is that sometimes you can spot somebody with a real future. I remember that I raved about an unknown comic named Melissa McCarthy when I caught her taking part in an improv show in Los Angeles.

But the fact is that you have to see a lot of mediocre comedy in order to increase your odds of catching one rising star on the way up.

The real joy in watching standup is to go to a one-hour (or longer) show built around one genuinely funny and hugely successful standup star.

So over the years I've seen longform standup by Chris Rock, Dennis Miller, Rita Rudner, pre-Tonight Show Jay Leno, Steven Wright, and ... oh. I think that's the whole list.

The thing about longform shows is that you're mostly getting tested material. (Steven Wright: "If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?") (Rita Rudner: "My grandmother was a very tough woman. She buried three husbands and two of them were just napping.") You don't ad lib those, you write them and then you learn them and you practice until you can say them as if you were simply making it up on the spur of the moment.

Needless to say, very few comics can do that, especially early in their career, yet until they do learn how to do that, they aren't going to have a career.

It's one of the things I'll miss about @Midnight with Chris Hardwick, which is ending its run with episode 600 this week. Every night they brought in three comedians or actors or whoever, and then they'd stand there ad-libbing their hearts out about stuff that gets thrown at them from the Internet.

But if they were really making it up on the spot, why did they need as many writers as Baskin-Robbins used to have flavors? And way more than that, when you remember that on a TV series, "executive producer" and most other producer credits also mean "writer, but paid more."

What made @Midnight work so well for 600 episodes is that most of the performers made it sound like they were ad-libbing.

I saw a lot of really good comedians for the first time on @Midnight. Ron Funches, Chris D'Elia, Kristen Schaal, Flula Borg, Nikki Glaser, Kyle Kinane -- I stopped listing them because I realized that a list of 100 names isn't going to be a good use of precious newsprint in the Rhino.

Where am I going to find new comedians now?

OK, Hardwick himself was relentlessly and ignorantly left wing on @Midnight, but he also has a good-natured air so he seems to mean no harm. It makes him watchable, mostly, and if I cared about any zombie shows I'd have plenty of Chris Hardwick commentary shows left to watch.

Without @Midnight, we'll have to count on comedy clubs to bring up the next generation of comedians. Unless Comedy Knockout on TruTV suddenly gets better. It could happen.

*

One of the best things about our recent trip to New York City is that Manhattan has a new park -- two blocks above the streets on the West Side. It's the track of an old elevated railroad that used to bring, not passengers, but supplies for retailers and restaurants.

Now all the produce and meat and dairy come into the city by truck, but instead of tearing down the tracks, they got turned into a wonderful walking trail, The High Line.

You pick it up on West 34th near Hell's Kitchen (due west from Macy's), then wend your way down past 14th Street, near the Whitney Museum.

Along the way, there are sculptures, benches to rest on, enjoyable public art, places to stop for a bite to eat or something to drink, and various places to get down to the street by stairway -- plus a decent number of wheelchair-accessible entrances.

It's open year-round, though it closes earlier in the winter. Check out the information at www.thehighline.org/visit.

My wife got up early and made the walk (including the mile from our hotel on 42nd Street) and got back before I woke up. It was one of the highlights of the summer for her, and she took a few pictures.

*

Later that day we walked to the Whitney. They mostly had some pretty nondescript "modern" pieces, and a special display of mobiles by the artist who pretty much invented the mobile, Calder.

We waited around for the "activation" of the mobiles. We thought they had attached them to motors. Or maybe they had fans that would blow and make them move.

What they actually had was a docent carrying a long stick with white padding at one end. She activated several of the mobiles by pushing gently with the padded end of the stick.

Everything was worshipful.

Most "modern" art is so, so dated. The whole movement didn't wear well. But Calder is still a couple of steps above Warhol.

*

As our New York visit was coming to an end, Delta's app gave us a night-before warning about forecasts of thunderstorms right when our flight was scheduled to leave the following afternoon.

Knowing how disrupted LaGuardia Airport had been on the day we arrived, we went ahead and changed our tickets to an earlier flight. We got away before any bad weather was scheduled, and it wasn't bad to be back in Greensboro earlier than we had expected.

Much better to reschedule passengers in advance than to have them stranded by weather, I think. Good job this time, Delta.

*

My first reaction to all the boohoo and brouhaha about the twentieth anniversary of Princess Diana's death was: All this for a person whose entire reason for fame was that she singlehandedly made the House of Windsor good-looking?

Then I caught the HBO special Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy. Hearing and seeing Princess Diana's sons talk about her as a mother was quite moving. Instead of comparing her to people who really changed the world (do we commemorate the death of Winston Churchill? Michael Faraday? Isaac Newton?), I recognize that to her children, she was something much more than the public persona.

And it was good to see something of the men her little boys have grown up to be. It's worth giving the documentary a look.


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