Hoopla

Actress returning to Iowa stage with Broadway musical 'Dear Evan Hansen'

MATTHEW MURPHY PHOTOs

Christiane Noll (left) stars as Cynthia Murphy, with Jessica Phillips as Evan’s mother, Heidi Hansen, in the first North American tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” The Tony-, Grammy- and Emmy-winning musical is coming to the Des Moines Civic Center from Feb. 5 to 10.
MATTHEW MURPHY PHOTOs Christiane Noll (left) stars as Cynthia Murphy, with Jessica Phillips as Evan’s mother, Heidi Hansen, in the first North American tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” The Tony-, Grammy- and Emmy-winning musical is coming to the Des Moines Civic Center from Feb. 5 to 10.
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Award-winning actress Christiane Noll has been on the road before, with lead roles in national tours of “Grease,” “Miss Saigon,” “City of Angels” and “South Pacific.”

Becoming a mother put a stop to all that — until “Dear Evan Hansen” came along.

“There aren’t any other pieces I would go on the road for,” Noll said by phone from a recent tour stop in Costa Mesa, Calif.

The first national tour of the 2016 Broadway musical that won six 2017 Tony Awards, including Best Musical — as well as Emmy and Grammy awards — opens Tuesday (2/5) and continues through Feb. 10 at the Des Moines Civic Center.

Noll was so happy to see Des Moines on the tour roster that she switched her vacation week so she wouldn’t miss returning to Iowa. She has sung several times with the Des Moines Symphony, including a July 4, 2015, concert where she sang works from “The Bridges of Madison County,” under the baton of composer Jason Robert Brown.

“I know the town and I have friends there,” she said. “There would be something wrong about me skipping out on Des Moines.”

She’s performing this time in a very modern musical that turns its lens on the power, place and pitfalls of social media. The action follows Evan Hansen, a socially awkward high school senior. Desperate to belong somewhere, he gets caught up in the social media web through an initial lie that spins out of control.

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While reluctant to give away key plot points, Noll acknowledged that “suicide is the event that triggers everything else that occurs.” As part of his therapy for his extreme anxiety, Evan’s therapist encourages him to write letters to himself about something that would be good about each day. One of those letters falls into the wrong hands, setting a downward spiral into motion.

The show’s website offers this synopsis: “A letter that was never meant to be seen, a lie that was never meant to be told, a life he never dreamed he could have. Evan Hansen is about to get the one thing he’s always wanted: a chance to finally fit in.” Until it all goes awry.

“It is a modern tale ensconced in all the things we are faced with” in this internet age, said Noll, who lives in her native New Jersey with her actor-husband, Jamie LaVerdiere, and their daughter who turns 10 this month.

“It’s a group of people that find themselves interacting with each other, and they’re all trying to connect one way or another, and they’re all succeeding or failing in one way or another,” she said. “ ... It’s difficult to describe without giving things away, but it is a profoundly emotional coming-of-age story that is filled with humor and joy and emotional release and awareness. It just is all of those things.”

Night after night, city after city, audience reactions reinforce Noll’s decision to take on the role of the mother in the well-to-do family that befriends Evan, the son of a single mother who is struggling to keep their lives afloat. With the Murphys, he finds what he feels his life is missing, but at what cost?

“How this is hitting people — the profundity of its message, how powerful it is and how important it is right now,” she said, “you can tell every night by watching the responses of the people in the audiences. I don’t mean how they’re applauding wildly — I mean how moved they’re been and how they’re collecting themselves, trying to put themselves back together after experiencing our show ...”

“This is why I wanted to be a part of it — to know that you can touch as many people in an important piece like this.”

Noll’s character, Cynthia Murphy, goes on an emotional journey alongside Evan.

“On the outside, they had everything all together, and theirs is the family where tragedy strikes. ... She is the one that is left, who is feeling something. She’s desperate for her daughter and her husband to experience some sort of emotional reaction to what is going on, so she’s sort of feeling for everybody else. (She is) desperate to know something good about the members of her family in connection to this tragedy, and maintain a more positive view — which would be really difficult to do under the circumstances.

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“Our entire story hinges on the notion that Evan wants to do something to soothe Cynthia’s pain, and that’s how the snowball starts rolling down the mountain.”

As an actor and mother, finding common ground with her character was no easy feat. Noll is very different from Cynthia.

“(Cynthia) really puts everyone else first and is always looking around to see how someone else is feeling,” said Noll, who is “thrilled” when Cynthia eventually “gets snappy” later in the show.

But as mothers, Noll said they both share that trait of blaming themselves when something goes wrong in their homes and with the people around them. And as an actor and mother, she has to protect herself while jumping onto an emotional roller coaster fueled by grief over losing a child — show after show.

“I’m glad I’ve had the chance to do this for an extended period of time,” she said of the tour, which began in October in Denver, Colo., and has everyone signed on for at least a year. “If it were only for a few months, I wouldn’t have fared as well.”

Taking a few deep breaths, lying down, reading or doing something that has “nothing to do” with the show helps.

“I’m on the phone with my husband all the time,” she said, “and try to put my daughter to bed all the time,” via FaceTime.

Like her daughter, Noll grew up immersed in the performing realm, with her late father being an Emmy-winning music supervisor for CBS and her mother, whom she described as a “glorious” soprano.

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“I traveled with my family a lot,” she said. “My parents decided giving me a little role in operettas was easier than getting a baby-sitter.”

And now her own daughter, also by nature and nurture, is showing her creative, expressive side. But when Noll asked her daughter if she wanted to join her friends in taking musical theater and acting classes, her daughter laughed.

“She looked at me sideways and said, ‘My life is an acting class.’”

Get Out

WHAT: “Dear Evan Hansen”

WHERE: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines

WHEN: Tuesday (2/5) to Feb. 10; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5 to 8, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Feb. 10

TICKETS: $40 to $225; Civic Center Ticket Office, (515) 246-2300 or Desmoinesperformingarts.org

RUN TIME: 2 hours, 30 minutes

EXTRAS: Recommended for ages 12 and older; post-show Q&A after Feb. 7 performance

SHOW’S WEBSITE: Dearevanhansen.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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