Sunday, December 9, 2018

Adolescent angst propels thought-provoking 'Dear Evan Hansen'

Ben Levi Ross stars in 'Dear Evan Hansen.' Curran theater photo

Misunderstanding leads to a web of lies with mixed results in the touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” presented by the Curran theater in San Francisco.

Winner of six Tony Awards in 2017, including Best Musical, the misunderstanding starts with a letter that high school senior Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross) writes to himself. He was advised to do so by the therapist he’s been seeing because he’s socially awkward and has virtually no friends.

A bullying classmate, Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), finds it and refuses to return it. Another classmate describes Connor as looking like a school shooter.

A few days later, Connor kills himself. Evan’s letter in his pocket is seen as a sign of friendship between them.

Connor’s parents, Larry (Aaron Lazar) and Cynthia (Christiane Noll), ask him to join them at dinner with their daughter, Zoe (Maggie McKenna), the junior on whom the shy Evan has a crush.

His web of lies makes the Murphy family feel good about Connor, believing he wasn’t the total loner they had thought him to be.

Next thing you know, Evan has to deliver a eulogy for Connor that goes viral. 

Classmate Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe) buys into the story and wants to set up a memorial fund to restore an abandoned apple orchard that Connor supposedly loved.

Also involved with the fund is what may be Evan’s only friend, the skeptical, wise-cracking Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith). Jared makes up emails that Evan and Connor supposedly exchanged. They, too, go viral.

Except for Evan, everybody’s happy, including his harried single mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), who works or goes to school most nights.

Eventually the truth comes out, leading to important bonding.

Much of the story unfolds in the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and the book by Steven Levenson.

Directed by Michael Greif, the acting is excellent, especially by Ross as Evan. He stutters, he stammers, he folds within himself with anxiety. It’s all he can do to greet others, let along hold a conversation.

All of the songs are sung well, but many of Evan’s solos are belted out, leading to a sameness. Moreover, the sound design by Nevin Steinberg is so loud that many lyrics are distorted. Music director Austin Cook leads the seven-member orchestra from the keyboard. Choreography is by Danny Mefford.

The set by David Korins is relatively simple and fluid, augmented by the social media images in Peter Nigrini’s projections. Character-specific costumes are by Emily Rebholz with lighting by Japhy Weideman.

The opening night audience was dominated by young people who were taking selfies in the lobby and aisles when they weren’t absorbed in their devices. However, when the show started, they responded enthusiastically.

Although the use of social media and the focus on a teenage as the main character hold special appeal to the younger generation, people of all ages can relate to the human dilemmas experienced by all the characters, especially the parents. It’s a thought-provoking, thoroughly entertaining show.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “Dear Evan Hansen” will continue at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco, through Dec. 30.

For tickets and information, call (415) 358-1220 or visit

Monday, December 3, 2018

Highly entertaining, 'Tuck Everlasting' poses intriguing question

Winnie (Natalie Schroeder) meets Jesse Tuck (Eddie Grey).

What if you could live forever without aging? Would you jump at the chance?

Not so fast, say the never-aging Tuck family members in “Tuck Everlasting,” the musical presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

An 11-year-old girl, Winnie Foster (Natalie Schroeder, alternating with Katie Maupin), learns the secret of the family’s longevity and has that choice in her New Hampshire hometown in 1893.

However, her new friend, 17-year-old Jesse Tuck (Eddie Grey), advises her to wait six years until she’s his age. She waits and makes the right decision.

The book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle is based on Natalie Babbitt’s popular children’s novel of the same name.

Tuneful music by Chris Miller with lyrics by Nathan Tysen makes this intriguing premise even more enjoyable.

Add in direction by artistic director Robert Kelley and a dynamic cast, and it’s a great way to celebrate the holidays and the inevitable cycle of life.

It begins with a brief scene in 1808 when the Tucks – Jesse, mom Mae (Kristine Reese), dad Angus (Jonathan Rhys Williams) and older son Miles (Travis Leland) – happen to drink from a spring at the base of a huge tree.

When they realize what has happened to them, they try to avoid other people and arousing their curiosity.

Winnie sneaks out of her house where her mother, Betsy (Teressa Foss), and grandmother, Nana (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone), are still mourning the death of her father a year ago.

After she encounters Jesse, she’s forced to his home, but her stubbornness and defiance earn Angus’ admiration. He allows them to sneak off and go to the fair that’s passing through town.

One of the carneys, the scheming Man in the Yellow Suit (Michael Gene Sullivan), finds out about the spring’s magic water. He wants to bottle and sell it, but he needs to know where the spring is.

In the meantime, Winnie’s worried mother asks Constable Joe (Colin Thomson) and
Colin Thomson (bottom) and  David Crane.
his bumbling new assistant, Hugo (David Crane), to look for her.

Of course she does return home.

This is a show filled with memorable scenes, such as the carnival’s arrival through the audience (“Join the Parade”).

The best and most moving scenes come last. No words are spoken as the actors enact the passage of time with weddings, births and deaths during a reprise of “The Wheel (of Life).”

Leading the opening night cast was the dynamic, poised Schroeder as Winnie. Not only does she act and sing well, she dances, too. She’s a triple threat.

Without singling anyone else out, suffice it to say that everyone else in this outstanding cast is praiseworthy, too.

This production is enhanced by Alex Perez’s choreography, Joe Ragey’s set, Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting, Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes and Jeff Mockus’s sound. The excellent orchestra is led by musical director William Liberatore from the piano.

Both entertaining and thought-provoking, this holiday treat is suitable for both adults and youngsters. It’s not to be missed.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “Tuck Everlasting” will continue through Dec. 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne 

Hillbarn stages musical 'Christmas Carol'

Scrooge (Christopher Reber) sees the Ghose of Christmas Present (Jennifer Martinelli). (Mark and Tracy Photography)

Hillbarn Theatre is celebrating the holiday season with a musical version of Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol.”

With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, it’s set in London on Christmas Eve, 1843.

It’s the tale of a curmudgeonly old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Reber), who discovers that money is less important than love for humanity.

After his clerk, Bob Cratchit (James Ambler) is done for the day, Scrooge heads home from his loan (shark) office, spurning pleas for charity with his trademark “bah, humbug.”

Once in bed, he’s confronted by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley (Randy O’Hara). Marley warns that the chains he carries could await Scrooge if he doesn’t change his ways. He adds that three more ghosts will visit that night.

The first, the sprightly Ghost of Christmas Past (Sammi Hildebrandt), shows him what he was like as a lonely boy and a much happier young man.

Next the more mature Ghost of Christmas Present (Jennifer Martinelli) takes him to the Cratchits’ home. Despite their poverty and worries about their youngest, Tiny Tim (Noah Itzkovitz), they’re a happy, loving family.

Finally, the looming Ghost of Christmas Future (three actors) shows what will happen if Scrooge doesn’t change. Lamenting his behavior, he becomes a generous benefactor to his clients and the Cratchits.

Directed by Hillbarn artistic director Dan Demers, the show moves well, aided by his flexible set. Choreography by Jayne Zaban increases the merriment, as do the costumes and wigs by Pamela Lampkin and the lighting by Carson Duper.

Although music director Rick Reynolds’ orchestra plays well, it’s too loud, often drowning out lyrics and getting no help from Ron Ho’s sound design.

Overall, the acting is fine, especially by Ambler as Bob Cratchit and Hildebrandt as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Many actors play several roles.

Singing is a mixed bag with the best coming from Hildebrandt, Ambler and the show’s youngsters.

The first notes of Menken’s score recall “The Phantom of the Opera,” while other songs seem derivative of Stephen Sondheim.

Nevertheless, the show’s message of kindness and charity comes through clearly and was well received by the nearly full house on opening night.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “A Christmas Carol” will continue through Dec. 16 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit