It’s way too early to talk about Come from Away’s prospects at the Tony Awards in June – but let’s do it anyway.
Last week in New York, I checked out the two new musicals that are currently considered the Canadian show’s strongest competition for best new musical this Broadway season: Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Coincidentally, all three are running in theatres on the same block of West 45th Street.
Like Come from Away, Dear Evan Hansen is a rarity on the Great White Way – an entirely original musical, not based on a film, a play or even a book. Also like Come from Away, it’s slowly been building toward Broadway, having already had runs at Arena Stage in Washington and off-Broadway.
Both shows can count Toronto’s David Mirvish among the producers, and both feature the voice of Jenn Colella – who is giving the stand-out performance as pilot Beverley in Come from Away, and has a recorded cameo in Dear Evan Hansen.
Dear Evan Hansen, however, is much more of what you might call a “well-made musical” with your usual back-and-forth of scenes (by Steven Levenson) and songs (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul).
Its fictional plot is very contemporary – and grabs you right at the start.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a friendless, anxiety-prone teenager who upon returning to high school one fall is pushed to the ground by Connor (Mike Faist) – who with his long hair and black clothing is, in the words of another student, “very school-shooter chic.” Connor does, indeed, have deadly violence in him – but he takes it out on himself early in the show. In a clever plot twist, Evan is misidentified after Connor’s suicide as his only friend – rather than a victim of his bullying – and the deceased teen’s parents turn to him for answers and comfort.
Not wanting to disappoint, Evan creates an intricate web of lies and then starts manufacturing e-mails between him and Connor to back them up. At first, he acts out of compassion, but soon he starts to enjoy the attention he receives online and at school as the BFF of an RIP – and uses the opportunity to get close to Connor’s sister (the wonderful Laura Dreyfuss). As the titular fabulist, Platt gives a real star turn, talking at superhuman speed, covering the stage in sweat and spittle in one of the wettest performances I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t quite shake the thought he was doing a Michael Cera impression at times, but I can’t deny the performance’s overall impressiveness. The way the actor – an incredible singer, too – wobbles his chin during panic attacks is, no doubt, going to win him a Tony.
Otherwise, I can’t call anything else for Dear Evan Hansen. It deflates, rather than explodes in the end, letting its central character off the hook and abandoning complexities and Connor’s family for the sake of a forced feel-good ending.
I also, ultimately, found something a little patronizing in its overwrought portrait of Evan’s single mom (Rachel Bay Jones) – and in the show’s implication that the children of divorce deserve pity over punishment when they do something wrong.
The pop score full of show-off vocal lines is by Pasek and Paul, the young songwriting team who recently won an Oscar for penning lyrics to the songs in La La Land.
There’s always been a strong whiff of privilege in this pair’s output, from their original song cycle, Edges – and it hasn’t disappeared here.
A domestic musical in the style of Next to Normal (and directed in the rock-concert style of the show’s director Michael Greif), Dear Evan Hansen is a huge hit – but too small, too sheltered, for my tastes.
Personally, I prefer messier musicals that tell more epic stories – and I found all I wanted in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.
It’s a sung-through, often theatrically tongue-in-cheek adaptation of (part of Volume 2 of) War and Peace – that follows the young Muscovite Natasha as she is courted by the sexy but deceitful Anatole (Lucas Steele) while the prince she is engaged to is off fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.
Dave Malloy is the all-rounder who wrote the music, the lyrics and even the orchestrations here for a band that has been deconstructed and placed all around Imperial Theatre.
Director Rachel Chavkin stylishly brings immersive staging to Broadway with this show – and I sat up on stage at a nightclub table, watching actors perform all over the theatre and throughout the audience. (FYI, Chavkin’s next project in a similar vein, Hadestown, will be further developed at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in the fall.)
Malloy’s score is a genuine delight, inventive, regularly sending shivers down your spine with surprising sounds that romp from classical to Russian folk to electropop.
On the day I was there, I saw an incredible actress named Lauren Zakrin negotiate the complex operatic vocal demands of Natasha; I would say she’s destined for a Tony nomination, if it weren’t for the fact that she’s the understudy for Denée Benton, who was on a scheduled break from the show.
Most of the crowd was there for the big-name singer Josh Groban – who does not disappoint as Pierre, an older man who is on the periphery of the plot but at the centre of the philosophical side of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, which is given full weight in this adaptation that, refreshingly, does not hide its literary origins.
It’s going to be close, Tony time. If Come from Away loses to Dear Evan Hansen for the big prize, I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t begrudge the risk-taking, seat-shaking Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 a Tony or two – especially for its brilliant music and direction.
While in Manhattan, I also saw another new musical that I don’t think anyone seriously thinks has any big chances at the Tonys, but is doing gangbusters at the box office: A Bronx Tale, adapted from the one-man play by Chazz Palminteri that was also made into a film in 1993.
It’s a story about a young Italian American torn between his father and a local Mafia boss – and, in musicalized form, rips off everything from Jersey Boys to West Side Story.
It’s derivative, its jokes are incredibly broad, the interracial romance feels tacked on – but the score by the legendary Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Newsies) is catchy and I have to admit I had a really fun time.
It’d be nice to see Nick Cordero, who plays small-time mob boss Sonny, get a Tony nod – and perhaps Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, which keeps the energy up throughout, too. I’m not just saying that because Cordero and Trujillo are Canadians, although they are.
Like I said, though, it’s too soon: There are still six more new musicals yet to open on Broadway during the eligibility period in this overcrowded post-Hamilton season.