Yes, thank you, I had a very nice trip to New York. We even had a weekend of glorious weather, with no humidity, cool breezes and (relatively) fresh air. And thanks again for understanding my desire to not sit in front of the laptop every night, putting words together to describe my feelings about the eight shows I saw on Broadway! I owe you some posts! In order to keep you from getting sick of me, I’ve decided to pair up the productions, which wasn’t as hard to do as you might think. For example, the first two shows I saw seem, at first glance, different as night and day. And yet, they have more in common than you think, starting with their target audiences. (Oh, and can you just ignore that Lion King image at the top? Thanks!)
As I sat on Tuesday night in the August Wilson Theatre watching Mean Girls, and then on Wednesday afternoon in the Music Box viewing Dear Evan Hansen, surrounded on both occasions by pre-teens, teenagers, and their parents, I asked myself, “How can you people afford this?” Theatre tickets are expensive! I paid around $375 combined for these two shows. An outing for a family of four to Evan Hansen can run you at least $800!
And then I saw the answer: these people are rich! Well, a lot of them are! Some got discounts through TKTS or other services. But judging by their nice clothes and acceptable theatre behavior, these kids are used to this! And I couldn’t help but feel bad that a lot of other kids won’t get to see the original casts perform with the stunning original sets, costumes and other accouterments of professional theatre. Even the tours will be “less than” this. So thank you, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for arranging for all the New York City schoolchildren to see Hamilton. And thank you, Robyn Tribuzi (our school dance teacher), for taking a hundred kids to New York every other year so that they can experience this, too.
I have to bring a third show in here, because I think it inevitable that Mean Girls will becompared with Legally Blonde. They’re both based on movies. They both center around female protagonists, the power of female friendship and mutual respect, and the road to female empowerment. By “female empowerment,” I think I mean that, while both Elle Woods and Cady Heron end up with the perfect guy, that’s just the gravy to their stew. The main journey for both is to discover and embrace the best of themselves which, in both cases, turns out to involve notchanging into something else but applying their best native qualities to new situations.
There’s also a lot of pink in both shows, and it’s significant that the color is the means for a group of girls to stand out from the rest. The difference here is that in Blondeit’s the good girls who co-opt pink as their color, while in Mean Girls, head Plastic Regina George (Taylor Louderman – omigod, you guys!) has not only ruled that pink is the color of mean. In her typical rigid fashion, she only allows her gang to wear it one day a week.
It’s a minor point of comparison to be sure, but before you lump these two shows together (and before you gear up in five or ten years for every high school in America to produce Mean Girlslike they produced Legally Blonde– and for YouTube to chronicle every mediocre Regina, Cady, Janis, Gretchen and Karen in the world), let me tell you why Mean Girlsis so much more fetch than Legally Blonde.
Let’s go back to the source material – the movies – both of which I loved. Yet my central enjoyment of Blonde boils down to the performance of Reese Witherspoon, who took a cliché and turned her into a person. Elle is both naive and knowing, the Queen Bee of her own world and a seeming rube in the academic fight pit of Harvard Law. The joy of Blonde is watching Elle access the gifts she always had to fight the power and to force both the collegial and legal worlds to operate on her terms. It’s utterly ridiculous that a woman’s guilt or innocence of murder would hinge on whether or not her attorney would understand the exigencies of getting a perm. Here, though, Elle’s quick deductions call to mind every denouement in Perry Mason and make us laugh.
Honestly, though, Elle’s happiness is never in danger. Her “fish out of water” nightmare is brief, and her nemesis Vivian only needs a quick nudge in the right direction to become her friend. This is because Elle never changes. She’s fabulous (her word) from start to finish; the only bump in the road is having to convince others that she is just fine the way she is. Oh, and shedding an awful boyfriend for the right one.
The musical version of Blonde was a “greatest hits” version of the movie, minus the great performances. The songs were . . . okay. The sets were awful. The real driving force was the staging, which pushed you along in an endless rush of energy. When I saw the original cast in the San Francisco try out, it wasn’t enough. I had liked the movie, but here I was bored.
Which brings us to Mean Girls. Everyone was good in that movie, but honestly other actors could have played any role and I would have enjoyed it for the story it told. It’s a snarky satire of high school life that, no matter how outrageous it gets, hones in on the stark reality of how hard it is to survive as a teenager. (And I have to say, since I saw it as an adult and not a teen, how grateful I am for its portrayal of teachers as people, not grotesques. Hey, we’re all trying to survive in school, kids!)
Cady Heron (Erika Henningson) is a true naif, having grown up isolated in Kenya with her biologist parents. She is a home-schooled genius but a social misfit, and when her folks lose their funding and have to emigrate back to Chicago, she embraces the idea of interacting with this new species of animal called the American teenager. At first, the school crowd welcomes her with all the energy they reserve for new, odd students: that is to say, Cady remains as isolated as she did back home. All she’s got going for her are her boundless optimism, her scientific curiosity, and a very smart brain.
Then she has the ambivalent fortune of capturing the interest of Damian (the marvelous Grey Henson) and Janis (Gianna Yanelli, subbing for Barrett Wilbert Weed), both of them outsiders themselves but fiercely adopting a “screw you” attitude toward the in crowd who put them there. Gay Damian and Artistic Janis have each other, and they offer Dweeby Cady the same deal. In an early song, “Where Do You Belong?” – a song I hated out of context on the Tony Awards but loved here – the misfits show Cady all the choices of cafeteria table she could sit at, including their own. She chooses wisely: it turns out that the Outsiders are the wittiest and most diverse bunch at the school!
It should’ve been enough, but Cady, in all her weirdness, attracts the interest of the Plastics, (brilliantly played by Taylor Louderman, Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell. (NOTE TO DRAMA TEACHERS: even though Cady is the star, all future high school divas will want to play a Plastic or Janis . . . orDamian!)As a result, Cady becomes torn between her true friends and her fake ones. Why not? Both groups are hilarious, in a fine libretto Tina Fey lifted from her own film that hits all the right parts of the movie yet allows the whole shebang to transfer nicely to the stage. Cady also meets and falls hard (“Stupid in Love”) with Aaron (handsome Jimmy Award winner Kyle Selig), who is even duller than Emmett in Legally Blonde. Unfortunately, he is Regina’s ex, and all hell breaks loose.
The first act is better than the second, which chronicles the catastrophic consequences of Cady’s decisions in too rushed a fashion. While Lindsay Lohan quite easily assumed Regina’s role as Queen Bitch, Henningson’s Cady doesn’t really have the time. Even at her worst, we never stop seeing flashes of the geeky girl we all love.
Louderman, Park and Rockwell shine here, but Grey Henson nearly walks off with the show.The whole thing is framed as a freshman orientation about how to treat your fellow students. If Damian had been my host, I would’ve come out five years earlier. And a special shout-out to established Broadway diva Kerry Butler who plays three roles (Candy’s solid mom, Regina’s needy/cool mother, andthe teacher role Fey played in the film) so convincingly that you forget they’re one incredibly talented person!
Casey Nicholaw’s choreography and direction was bursting with energy and utterly appropriate to high schoolers, as played – wink, wink – by thirty-something actors. Scott Pask’s scenic design was also incredible with its creative use of projections. I pity all the future community theatre directors who try to maintain the exuberant flow of the story with clunky scene changes.
Ultimately, Mean Girls works for me because it’s both funny and carries a nice message for young people that is delivered with a loving smirk. It ain’t Hamilton. It’ll never be a classic. But it’ll make a lot of money through the years. And it might even make a few kids think longer about which cafeteria table they want to sit at.
Evan Hansen never sits at the table. It’s questionable that he even enters the cafeteria, as his first song “Waving Through a Window” attests. Abandoned by his father as a boy, suffering from crippling anxiety for which he is medicated, and potentially on the spectrum, our hero doesn’t have much of a life at the start of Dear Evan Hansen. In other words, like Mean Girls, we have another tale of a socially awkward young person struggling to fit in. In tone and substance, however, Evan Hansen is (forgive me) on another spectrum. There is humor, but it serves a larger purpose.
Unlike Cady, Evan is not alone in his isolation. None of the student characters we meet are mean girls or popular kids. Alana masks her loneliness with overachievement. Jared uses sarcasm, and Connor Murphy uses drugs. Evan doesn’t care: he would accept any of them as his friend, but he doesn’t know how to go about making the connection. Having recently broken his arm, he receives a suggestion from his struggling senior mom Heidi (the luminous Rachel Bay Jones) to get the kids to sign his cast. Most of them refuse, but in an awkward encounter in the boys’ bathroom, Connor scrawls his name across the cast, right before he steals a letter Evan had written to himself on the advice of his therapist.
And then Connor kills himself.
Yes, Evan Hansen is another of those difficult shows, like Spring Awakening, that speaks honestly to some of the biggest, darkest issues facing kids – but that kids themselves will rarely get to perform. The topic of teen suicide, the difficulty of playing the Hansens and the Murphys . . . it remains to be seen which communities will dare to try this on and who will succeed. I appreciate how much librettist Steven Levenson leavens the story with humor. The conversations between Heidi and her son are often as funny as they are moving. And Sky-Lakota Lynch as Jared gets most of the best laugh lines, although we feel for him, too. After insisting throughout Act One that he is only a “family” friend because his parents make him be nice to Evan by threatening to withhold his auto insurance, Jared feels the loss of that arranged friendship when Evan’s new popularity makes their relationship extraneous.
Connor’s death changes Evan’s world in ways he could have never imagined. Finding the letter Evan wrote to himself in Connor’s pocket, the Murphys assume that their friendless son actually had a friend, and they latch onto Evan for information about the stranger who lived in their house. Like Cady in Mean Girls, Evan receives some bad advice about how to handle this. To make matters worse, he doubles down on that advice in order to find acceptance, a purpose . . . and love. Naturally, it can’t last.
It’s actually kind of amazing – seeing these two shows back to back – how much they have in common. The first act ends with Cady/Evan harvesting the great fruits of their deception, while Act II shows their unraveling. Evan’s journey is better paced and more moving because the situation is more serious and better written. Every time we see what a gift he is to Connor’s parents and daughter, as well as to the school and online communities, we feel a potent mixture of joy, sadness and fear: we all want happiness for Evan, but we know how these utopias built on a lie work.
Evan Hansen has been performing off and on Broadway for over three years. Ben Platt is long gone, but Taylor Trensch is no consolation prize. He is more subtle than Platt but no less affecting. Perhaps his singing isn’t as “Platt-tacular,” but he sounds great. In addition to Jones, Laura Dreyfuss continues as the original Zoe Connor, Connor’s baffled, angry sister and unlikely girlfriend to Evan. She was wonderful, as was Michael Park as her father Larry. You could almost see the emotional wall he had erected around himself after his son’s death, and when it comes down at the end of Act One, you can see that, too, through your tears.
The use of projections in Mean Girls is utterly brilliant. (Honestly, Broadway, what do you want us high school drama departments to do with this?) The designers of Evan Hansen also do some brilliant stuff recreating the world of social media onstage. I don’t know how this will be replicated in high schools and community theatres. The least the producers could do is take steps to let every child see this wonderful production, instead of allowing the have-nots to stand outside, waving through a window.
Still, with a show as emotionally powerful as Dear Evan Hansen, I imagine that even in low-tech mode, the message that we must pay attention to our disaffected youth will shine through.
Next chapter: Reconstructing the classics!
5 thoughts on “THEATRICAL OCTET, PART ONE: Save the Children”
Glad to see you’re back, Brad. And I’m very happy to hear that you got the chance to see some fine shows. Thanks for your thoughtful critique, too. It’s interesting to see how many similarities there are among these shows that seem so different on the surface. I agree, too, about giving young people the opportunity to see shows like this. And, perhaps, even do them. The messages are worth hearing and sharing.
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Thank you Brad for critiquing these shows. I don’t know if I would ever be able to afford 8 shows at once! This way you’ve helped me narrow down which ones to choose next visit to NY. Look forward to the next installment. 🙂
It’s just my thing, Helene! I didn’t do much else!!! 🙂
When I saw Dear Evan Hansen it was in December 2016, two weeks after opening night. It was like going to a rock concert! The moment the house lights dimmed and Act One was about to start the entire theater erupted in screaming and shouting and whistling. Each performance of a well known song was greeted with outrageously long ovations of applause and more screaming. Now I know what it must have been like to be in the audience back in the 60s when the Beatles were first performing and teenage girls made up most of the audience. The Obie winning off Broadway production had already made DEH a cult for many audience members and the release of two songs on social media plus Ben Platt’s many appearances on TV talk shows made it more of one for those just discovering the show. It was the strangest new experience I’ve had seeing how live theater in New York is being dominated by younger audiences who’ve learned about theater through the internet rather than newspapers and TV. That the musical is very much about the dangers of social media adds a bit of a frisson while watching the show. Of course I had forgotten as a high school drama teacher you would see these shows about teens in a completely different light than I did. Thank for the insights into MEAN GIRLS (glad the wretched song performed on the Tonys actually makes sense in the show) but I’ll skip it just as I skipped other musicalized movies like SCHOOL OF ROCK, LEGALLY BLONDE and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS. I hear the BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY was actually one of the better shows of this type, but it closed rather swiftly like GROUNDHOG DAY did. If so many of them lose so much money I wonder why producers keep thinking the movie-into-musical trend is worth it all.
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