REVIEW: Taylor Trensch in “Dear Evan Hansen”
Broadway’s exquisitely engineered, 2017 Tony Award winning best musical “Dear Evan Hansen” welcomed its newest star this evening as Taylor Trench officially opened in the title role of the troubled, outsider teen who constructs a tale of a fake friendship with a dead schoolmate and finds his world upended.
Mr. Trensch hails directly from the acclaimed cast of “Hello, Dolly!”, where he’s played wide-eyed, teenage hay and feed clerk Barnaby Tucker for the past year. Sauntering through Shubert Alley in his leap from 44th to 45th Street—facing the unenviable task of stepping into the part iconically created by Tony winner Ben Platt (“Pitch Perfect”, “The Book of Mormon”)—he’s now playing a decidedly less chipper teenager, replacing Noah Galvin (TV’s “The Real O'Neals”), who performed the role for 11 weeks this winter.
In Mr. Trensch, “Dear Evan Hansen” has welcomed a new star who not only delivers a superb and confident performance in a behemoth, marathon part, but also reinvigorates the whole production. Rather than imitating his predecessors—he admits to having only seen the show a handful of times—Mr. Trensch has built his own Evan from the ground up, seamlessly integrating with the rest of the original cast and giving their performances new rhythm and voice.
His vocal performance is stunning, the sharpest and clearest delivery yet of the impossibly difficult score Evan has to sing (I got chills multiple times). He doesn’t reach for a single note. He lands with power and poise, revealing, as Mr. Platt did so memorably, the haunting beauty and hummable brilliance behind near-EGOT Pasek and Paul (“Dogfight”, “A Christmas Story”)’s contemporary pop-rock score.
Mr. Trensch’s Evan is the most outwardly composed of the three who have played the part, but the intense fear he coils behind a forced or false smile is sad and palpable, and just as effective. Each has had their own physical ticks, notably flights of gesticulation; Mr. Trensch’s more measured moves are in his face and hands. Whereas Mr. Platt and Mr. Galvin were more wounded, Mr. Trensch fully embraces the loser, loner (sociopath?) persona, while, paradoxically, hiding behind a patina of charm. It is quite a feat to master that duality so common in teens uncomfortable in their own skin while living a lie, but Mr. Trensch nails it. I did not question, for a second, that this 17 year old character was actually a 28 year old man.
At the end of act one, when he collapses from nerves while giving a speech at school, hands tremulously covering his face, Mr. Trensch frantically bunches up Evan's necktie, a suddenly discovered talisman of strength that brings calm; it is a strikingly raw and real human moment, and one I don’t remember from earlier viewings.
I first saw “Dear Evan Hansen” two weeks after the 2016 election while too emotionally exhausted to be receptive to the heaps of pathos wielded throughout. I returned two more times, following the hype of the Tonys and to catch Mr. Galvin’s interim stint, always admiring the slick crafting of the show—particularly the smart and funny book by Steven Levenson (“If I Forget”), precise direction by Michael Greif (“Rent”), and, of course, the score, which was on repeat for much of 2017—but still feeling detached from the emotional core of the story and the buzz surrounding it. Call me a late bloomer, maybe it is a function of time or a product of a new energy, but following this latest visit, I get it.
The rest of the original cast deserves praise for staying nimble enough to adjust to Mr. Trensch and fresh after performing an emotionally draining show off and on for almost three years now. Most have been with the production since the 2015 premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and through its run at Second Stage Theater Off-Broadway in 2016. Mr. Platt jokes (or maybe not) that he’s run out of tears. Tony winner Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan’s lioness of a single mother, Heidi, sheds a fair amount herself, and induces the audience to follow suit in her act two showstopper. She still gives the most heartbreaking, and my favorite, performance of all.
On a somber note, “Dear Evan Hansen”, with its cutting commentary on connection in the Internet age, continues to prove its relevance and resonance. The speed of social media fame and destruction feels pulled from the headlines, and as the nation heals from the latest mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Jared (Will Roland)’s comment that Connor (Mike Faist)’s haircut is “very school shooter chic” strikes an audible chord of discomfort in the audience, as well it should.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a cry from the gut of the isolated, white, teenage boy increasingly in crisis in America—detached, alone, and frustrated—and too often turning to destructive behavior. Evan painfully writes: “I wish that anything I said mattered to anyone”. The show’s promise that “you will be found” has offered hope and healing for scores of diehard fans in search of it. I remain skeptical of the emotional manipulation, lack of consequence for bad actions, and questionable handling of mental illness in the show, but those faults fall by the wayside in considering Mr. Trensch, who is simply terrific.
Bottom Line: In Taylor Trensch, “Dear Evan Hansen” has welcomed a new star who not only delivers a superb and confident performance in a behemoth, marathon title part, but also reinvigorates the whole production. Mr. Trensch is, in a word: terrific.
“Dear Evan Hansen”
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: December 4, 2016