Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Dear Evan addiction

Dear Evan Hansen

Music Box Theatre, New York City

From November 14, 2016

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From before its beginning, audiences at “Dear Evan Hansen” see its 8-piece orchestra take their places in the upper level of David Korin’s simple but effective set. It’s an appropriate placement given the show’s award-winning, standout soundtrack and by the time we get to Evan’s (Andrew Barth Feldman) first solo, ‘For Forever’, it is easy to appreciate the show’s six Tony Award wins, including for Best Score and Best Musical.

This is “Dear Evan Hansen”, the contemporary Broadway stage musical with music and lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Steven Levenson, that tells the story of neurotic misfit high schooler Evan Hansen, a shy and self-conscious loner who struggles with crippling social anxiety so is assigned by his therapist to write letters to himself (hence the title) about why each day will be good, one of which becomes the catalyst for the gripping story.

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After, over the summer, Evan breaks his arm in fall from an orchard tree, his mum (Lisa Brescia) suggests that he get others at school to sign his cast. When, sadly nobody takes up the offer, Evan resigns himself to a life of being ignored, while secretly pining his unrequited, long-time love for Zoe (Gabrielle Carrubba), until Zoe’s troubled brother Connor (Alex Boniello) finds his ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ letter and things unfold from there in a surprisingly upbeat way, for while the score is filled with beautiful ballads like Evan’s ‘For Forever’, these are counter balanced with catchy numbers and many humourous moments, mostly arising from Evan’s social anxiety disorder awkwardness.

The humour comes despite the story’s dark themes for it is not long into Act One that Connor commits suicide, with Evan’s stolen letter to self still in his pocket, which everyone takes as a suicide note, assuming that he and Evan were actually friends. Empowered by suddenly finding himself noticed, Evan works with Jared (Sky Lakota-Lynch), the closest thing he has to a real-life friend, to make Connor into his best and dearest friend who ran to Evan when he fell and broke his arm. This also caters to the needs of Connor’s grieving parents Larry and Cynthia (Ivan Hernandex and Ann Sanders) who affectionately welcome Evan into their family with an attention that his busy single mother, working as a nurse’s aide while attending night school, is, despite her best attempts, unable to provide. As things snowball into the Connor Project social media movement, instigated by enthusiastic go-getter acquaintance Alana (Samantha Williams), Evan feels increasingly overwhelmed with guilt and doubt over his decisions.

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Especially for such a small musical (with a cast of eight), “Dear Evan Hansen” has a huge heart. There is a deep humanity to its themes; this is a show about wanting to belong, with comments about difference, grief and acceptance. Indeed, the musical is moving in its subject matter but also incredibly hopeful in its ‘You will be Found’ (the show’s highly emotional Act One finale) sentiment. It is this combination that makes it a thing of both beauty and joy that will both break your heart and give you hope.

The show’s score is outstanding. From start to finish, the music is absolutely beautiful, but also its songs are incredibly catchy. The songs are storyline based, meaning that the insightful lyrics seamlessly merge with the dialogue, without becoming overly sentimental, yet they are also perfectly written to convey the emotions and lives of the characters. From fan favourite ‘Waving Through a Window’, in which Evan wonders if it is his destiny to be ignored and an outcast for the rest of his life, perfect in its every lyric and key change, to the upbeat ‘Sincerely Me’, in which ‘Evan’ and ‘Connor’ play out the fake, backdated email conversations of Jared’s playful imagining, the soundtrack is full of light and shade and a fine balance of tone.

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The completely original story is also engaging thanks to the performances of its cast; experience of the show feels like observation of real people and relationships in a story also authenticated by its inclusion of a social media aspect. Especially noteworthy is Andrew Barth Feldman who is rarely off stage as Evan. His embodiment of the titular character is nuanced down to the cadence of his physicality in a manner akin to the character of Christopher Boone in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. His performance is choreographed to make his emotional discomfort evident even in the subtlety of physical and vocal tics. Indeed, it is astounding to consider that the role represents his Broadway debut.

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Musical theatre does not get any better than “Dear Evan Hansen”. Its legacy is so genuine that it is easy to appreciate the fandom community that has been built around the landmark musical and its experience ensures immediately subscription as a new admirer and addiction to repeat plays of its cast recording.