Teenage perks seen on the distant horizon

Missy (Taylor Richardson, center) and her friends wait to be allowed into the local nightclub.

By Richard Ades

It’s impossible to watch 18 to Party without thinking of The Breakfast Club. That’s because it, like John Hughes’s 1985 classic, is about a group of troubled teens alternately connecting and sparring with each other.

However, the new film by writer/director Jeff Roda is darker, both literally and otherwise. Gathering outside on an evening in 1984, its youths often target each other with verbal potshots (that threaten to turn into actual potshots after one of them produces a pellet gun). The hostility stems partly from the fact that they’re eighth-graders, which puts them in an age group that’s awkward for boys and perhaps even more so for girls.

That, in fact, is the theme of the film. More than children but not yet old enough to enjoy the perks they expect to gain in high school, they exist in a kind of restless limbo. Their not-yet-arrived status is particularly obvious on this particular night, when they’re forced to wait outside a small-town nightclub that won’t let them in unless space remains after their elders have been admitted.

While they look forward to high school, on the other hand, their view of the future is not entirely optimistic. The community has experienced a series of student deaths, including a pair of suicides that hit close to home. These, along with reports of UFO sightings and a far-off mass shooting, suggest that their future is far from safe or secure.

The long-absent Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson) pays a visit.

And then there’s Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson), younger brother of one of the recent suicide victims. After being away in an apparent mental institution because he committed an act that’s never spelled out, he’s returned for a visit, at least. His mercurial presence threatens to disrupt an evening that already feels dangerously unsettled.

One more similarity with The Breakfast Club is that all of the characters are played by actors who turn them into distinctive individuals. Besides Lanky, several stand out.

At the center of much of the intrigue is Shel (Tanner Flood), a shy kid whose home life has suffered following the arrival of a strict new stepfather. His best friend and mentor is Brad (Oliver Gifford), an alpha male who’s prone to flashes of anger due to unacknowledged challenges in his own life.

Amy (Alivia Clark) and Shel (Tanner Flood)

Among the girls, the popularity-seeking Missy (Taylor Richardson) and the fiercely unconventional Kira (Ivy Miller) attack each other with malice that’s probably fed by their own insecurities. Meanwhile, Amy (Alivia Clark) pops by occasionally to talk to Shel, who is obviously and bemusedly the target of her affection.

With help from music by the Alarm, Velvet Underground and other bands, the kids’ individual traumas are depicted so expertly that it’s too bad Roda chose to close the proceedings with what seems like a tacked-on ending. Otherwise, this is a satisfyingly atmospheric portrait of young teens facing the future with a combination of hope, angst and dread.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

18 to Party (no MPAA rating) is available from VOD outlets beginning Dec. 1.

Teenage angst, loneliness at center of ingenious musical

Stephen Christopher Anthony as 'Evan Hansen' and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hanse. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Stephen Christopher Anderson (center) plays the title role in the first North American tour of Dear Evan Hansen. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

The first thing you see when you arrive at the Ohio Theatre to see Dear Evan Hansen is a wall filled with scrolling images of social media. It’s a sign that the story takes place in an era—namely now—when young people do much of their communicating via the internet.

One might be tempted to speculate that this reliance on virtual communication is the reason the title character is so terrified of face-to-face interaction. That theory dissolves, however, as soon as Evan (Stephen Christopher Anthony) opens his mouth.

The high school senior clearly suffers from an awkwardness and lack of self-confidence that would be debilitating in any era. For example, he has a huge crush on a girl named Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna) but is afraid to even talk to her. So serious is Evan’s problem that his concerned mom, Heidi (Jane Pfitsch), has sent him to counseling and coaxes him to follow his therapist’s advice by writing a daily letter to himself in an attempt to get in touch with his feelings.

It’s one of those letters that not only gives the musical its name but drives the plot, as it falls into the wrong hands and is subsequently mistaken for a farewell note left behind by Zoe’s troubled brother, Connor (Marrick Smith). When Evan is assumed to be Connor’s best and only friend—after all, the letter is addressed to him—he initially goes along with the misunderstanding in an attempt to comfort Zoe and her parents. But he soon finds himself trapped in an elaborate fiction that perversely elevates his standing in a school that previously ignored him.

Since opening on Broadway in 2016, Dear Evan Hansen has won six Tonys (including Best Musical) and become an enduring hit. No doubt it owes much of its early success to Ben Platt’s acclaimed portrayal of Evan in the original cast, but its continued popularity reflects the universal appeal of Steven Levenson’s ingenious book and Benji Pasek and Justin Paul’s score and lyrics.

Evan’s plight can be understood by anyone who ever felt insecure and unpopular in high school (that is, pretty much all of us). And any parent who ever felt unequal to the task of parenting will relate to Heidi, as well as to Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar, but replaced by John Hemphill at Tuesday’s performance), as their son was a source of pain long before his premature departure.

Heidi and Cynthia are given a chance to express their worry in the show’s first musical number, “Anybody Have a Map?” It and the hopeful “You Will Be Found”—performed under a sparkling kaleidoscope of lighting and scenic images—serve as strong bookends to the engrossing first act.

I must admit that my interest waned slightly during the second act and that neither I nor my companion found it as emotionally compelling as those who could be heard sniffling around us. This may be partly due to some of the acting choices made under the direction of Michael Greif.

In particular, while Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe properly emphasize the humorous side of their respective teenage characters, Jared and Alana, it would be nice if they threw in a little vulnerability to help us understand why Evan’s deception is so eagerly accepted by his classmates.

Such a change might help Anthony plumb even more depth from the lead role he took over this week. Meanwhile, the actor expertly navigates Evan’s fast-talking nervousness and largely conquers the tricky tunes and frequent forays into falsetto that Pasek and Paul have given him. His rendition of one of the show’s best-known numbers, “For Forever,” is a triumph. (Sam Primack takes over the role for the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)

Speaking of the music, my only real problem with the show itself is that many of the songs are less than memorable. Those mentioned above are tuneful and moving, but several others are devoid of recognizable melodies.

The saving grace is that none of the songs seems superfluous, as the lyrics always serve to carry the plot forward. And the plot is both timely and timeless enough to make Dear Evan Hansen a musical theater classic.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dear Evan Hansen through Sunday (Sept. 22) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets (standard and verified resale) are $70 and up. Enter a drawing for the chance to win $25 tickets at luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.