Some Tonys are sound and meritorious, such as the 2017 ones for Kevin Kline Rachel Bay Jones, “Jitney,” Nigel Hook (set designer for “The Play That Goes Wrong”), Santo Loquasto, Gavin Creel, Mimi Lien (set designer for “Great Comet”). Alex Lacamoire (orchestrator for “Dear Evan Hansen”), Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer for “Bandstand), “Oslo,” Michael Aronov (featured actor in “Oslo”), Cynthia Nixon (Birdie in “The Little Foxes”) and “Hello, Dolly!” along with the, alas, unavoidable Bette Midler in a champion role. But others are disputable.
I often wonder why drama critics and Tony people tend to have such poor taste. Case in point, the rave reviews for “Dear Evan Hansen” and its six Tonys, including the one for best musical. Helping what I consider worthless become a blockbuster. “Evan” is the only show within recent memory that I had to grit my teeth to prevent walking out on in the middle. Note that I have a strong stomach and have been able to sit through countless garbage without blinking or temptation to regurgitate. Not so, however, with non-dear “Evan.”
Let me explain. It is the story of a highschooler who has very few friends and hopelessly admires dashing and rebellious Connor Murphy. This leads the lonely boy (his single mother is too desperately busy as sole support) to send himself a chummy e-mail addressed to “Dear Evan” and signed “Connor.”
Connor, however, out of some kind of unexplained arrogance. commits suicide. This leaves the Murphys—father Larry, mother Cynthia, and sister Zoe—understandably devastated. Coming upon the fake e-mail, though, they conclude that Connor and Evan were bosom buddies and proceed to all but adopt the writer as a cherished substitute. At the same time, with the help of two classmates, a Jewish boy and a Negro girl, Evan becomes some kind of hero. The previously withdrawn, beautiful Zoe even ends up going to bed with him.
Most peculiar are the symptoms assigned to Evan’s problematic persona. One is talking so fast as to be borderline incomprehensible; another is fits of trembling worthy of a sputtering machine gun. This is supposed to convey troubles that, in reality, would be internalized, and gain sympathy from the audience that, were if smarter, would be repelled.
Instead , the embodier, Ben Platt, has gained almost universal raves, and the Tony for leading actor in a musical. This over the much more deserving Andy Karl in “Groundhog Day.” But it is the ordinary, even slightly dopey, looks of Platt, and Evan’s terrible tremors—and later pangs of conscience about falling in with a fake persona—that endear him to the kindred viewers and Tony voters. Nothing, it seems, plays like pathos.
All this could be mitigated if Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics amounted to anything. The music, especially, is deplorable, what with not a single worthwhile tune, almost nothing that, far from being hummable, was not exasperating. There was, to be sure, some redemption in the orchestrations and arrangements by Alex Lacamoire, which at moments managed to make things sound as if there were some underlying melody there. But how much can well-made clothes do for a poorly made body?
Well, there was decent lighting from Japhy Weideman, yet not even the sets, including the projections elicited from the the fine Peter Negrini, could be countenanced. The equally fine David Korins provided several columns of piled up computer screens displaying a chaos of images, some of them related to the play, but most of them unrelatedly from (anti)social media. You couldn’t even, as the old joke has it, leave humming the scenery.
Though much was the fault of Steven Levenson’s book, I tend to suspect equal harm from the staging of Michael Greif, a director I have scant use for. Granted that he doesn’t go in for deliberate atrocities like, say, Sam Gold, his steady mediocrity is not all that preferable.
I do not, however, blame the supporting cast, which includes the appealing Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and the excellent Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s kind but overworked mother. I even wondered at the ability of most of them to sing totally tuneless stuff with a straight face. Especially absurd was the scene in which father Larry Murphy and beloved son-substitute Evan rummage through Connor’s things and come upon a barely used baseball glove, which they put to immediate joyous practice.
I will certainly try to forget the many scenes in which the dead Connor palavers with Evan or just peers at him from almost the wings. Isn’t it rude to hover?
Another questionable Tony was the one for leading actress in a play to Laurie Metcalf for her Nora in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” The play, by the oddly named but not untalented Lucas Hnath is a sequel to Ibsen’s “Doll House,” as it should be rightly named. The added possessive ‘S is wrongheaded: it is not about a house belonging to an infantilized Nora Helmer, but the ridiculous toy house in which husband Torvald Helmer has kept all of them.
But never mind. I have always admired Laurie Metcalf in various roles, but currently, doubtless egged on by her quirky director, she overshoots the mark. She is playing Nora, who, fed up with being a doll-wife, leaves, shutting the door on husband and children, and heads for a new life. After other jobs, she finally writes a book about more or less her own life, which becomes a huge bestseller and makes her wealthy.
But husband Torvald has never bothered to divorce her, and she comes back now, fifteen years later, to seek the divorce she needs to be fully emancipated and not require Torvald’s signature on some of her dealings. Under Norwegian law, it was very hard for a wife to get a divorce, whereas a husband could have one in a trice. So she is back in a home that hasn’t changed much, and first has a long conversation with Anne Marie, the faithful retainer, who still treats her as if she were her child, but fills her in on what little has happened here. Whereas Nora has had new friends and lovers, Torvald still dithers and has never sought another marriage. Will he now give her a divorce? Nora’s grown and independent-minded daughter, Emmy, is supposed to act as a necessary intermediary, but is none too keen on getting involved.
Finally comes the awkward, somewhat painful conversation with Torvald, with bittersweet memories and some recrimination, but likelihood of a divorce. The play ends with Nora looking forward to an, as she thinks, certainly coming era when women will have full independence and privileges, something Torvald doubts will ever happen. As she is about to shut that door behind her again, they both stand close to it, but look forward to different futures.
The writing is mostly clever, though I wish Hnath wouldn’t have it both ways, with language and mores both old and new, including a goodly measure of “shits” and “fucks.” The play, although not without merit, is hardly the wonder as which it has been hailed.
Now a play in which the four characters successively talk in place can seem confined and boring. So here we have the alleged genius director, Sam Gold, given to some good as well as some bizarre ideas. He does come up with interesting movements for the actors, which almost take the place of action. But when Nora lies down on the floor or makes as if she were about to climb up the walls, we think of caged animals, which Nora is trying to get away from, while Torvald is reconciled to remaining. This does constitute a kind of kinetic scenario, but does not replace real action.
It does , however, encourage Ms. Metcalf’s doing her elegant version of Saint Vitus dance, and accosting an interlocutor from every possible direction, behind, before or beside, till I could not but recall a famous director, I think Noel Coward, telling a fidgety Actors Studio method actor, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
My last complaint is about the short shrift accorded to the musical “Bandstand,” which may not be outstanding, but is still superior to the competition. It was nominated in only two categories and won only in one, for Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography. The choreographer did much the same also for “Hamilton” but here managed it even better. It is a sort of through-dancing, going on, when not upfront, often around the edges, yet somehow creating not confusion but confirmation.
The often spectacular acrobatics--involving highly original steps, holds, and leaps--seconded the narrative without any conflict, even when it could have easily become redundant by usurping the attention.
Equally commendable is that the show, with music by Richard Oberacker and book and lyrics by him and Rob Taylor, tells the story of six war veterans in 1945 Cleveland, each of them a musician on a different instrument, and features men all as adept with their instruments as with their roles. They form a band playing mid-century jazz, overcoming sundry dissensions in ultimately thrilling harmony.
They are also the background to the love story of their leader and pianist, Danny Novitski, with Julia Trojan, who previously sung only in church, but whom Danny, against her intense resistance, persuades to become their consummate vocalist. Everyone, including Julia’s mother, is eventually winning, with the added pleasure of Julia being played by Laura Osnes, one of our prettiest and most gifted performers.
It hardly matters that the plot is rather conventional when everything, including a hymn to the glories of Cleveland, is droll and delightful. “Bandstand” was evidently too subtle for the Tory nominators and voters to apprehend and appreciate.