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Review: Before ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ its songwriters spoke straight to the heart with ‘Edges’

Four singers sitting on a raised platform look into the distance with expressions of surprise and hopefulness.

The songs in “Edges” — performed by, from left, Tyler Marshall, Elizabeth Curtin, Jewell Holloway and Sarah Pierce — view the future with cautious optimism.
(Doug Catiller / Chance Theater)

Long before Broadway discovered Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo’s songs were excitedly shared among theater kids.

The music back then was from “Edges,” a song cycle the pair wrote in 2005 as sophomore theater students at the University of Michigan. Funny, earnest and instantly likable, the songs address the myriad quandaries of being young. Via social media and YouTube, the tunes sped through networks of college and high school students — an internet pile-on that intriguingly presages the one in the duo’s mega-hit, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Looking back at what the buzz was all about, Chance Theater in Anaheim is staging “Edges” in an engaging, emotionally satisfying return to live, indoor performance.

Theater companies, orchestras and others keep a wary eye on rising infections caused by the Delta variant, and get ready to pivot yet again.

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Scaled to the modest resources of its initial student base, the piece is small and simple, pretty much the opposite of the lavish film musicals to which Pasek and Paul have since contributed, such as “La La Land” or “The Greatest Showman.” No phalanxes of strutting, spinning circus performers here. Just four performers, singing their hearts out.

There’s no plot or dialogue either. The 16 songs unfold according to themes, which include careers and other opportunities, as well as finding the right person to share it all with.

“We were writing songs about our friends, about ourselves,” Paul recalled a few years ago when I interviewed the duo about their career. “When you’re 20 years old, you feel like the things you are going through are earth-shifting,” with “life-or-death stakes.”

Although presented locally by schools and student groups, Pasek and Paul’s first musical has been left all but untouched by professional companies. The Chance, however, is something of a specialist in the duo’s early material, having already presented “James and the Giant Peach” and “Dogfight.”

Bradley Kaye has designed a sort of celestial cabaret space that’s sky blue, the color of possibility. At the back sit an electric keyboardist (music director Robyn Manion), an electric bassist and a drummer. Up to 98 viewers can watch from rows lining three sides of the performing area.

To songs about decisions to be made and chances to be taken, Elizabeth Curtin brings a fluttering, introspective voice, Sarah Pierce a duskier, playful one, Jewell Holloway a contemplative resonance and Tyler Marshall an ethereal tenor.

Director James Michael McHale keeps each number rooted in truth. Choreography, when appropriate, emerges out of everyday movement.

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Although prone to the occasionally missed pitch, the singers blend beautifully when combined in duets or, still more gloriously, quartets, as in the final, hopeful number: “Like Breathing.” Pasek and Paul’s “Dear Evan Hansen” star, Ben Platt, told me that he and some high school friends performed “Like Breathing” for a senior recital here in L.A., and from then on he was “obsessed” with the songwriters.

It’s easy to understand why.

These soulful songs would fit as comfortably on the pop charts as on a stage, and although you won’t necessarily hear precursors to the soaring, shoot-for-the-stratosphere tunes the pair tend to write nowadays, you definitely will recognize their ability to capture emotion in words and music that speak straight to the heart.

The show’s final word, after so much yearning and heartache, is particularly well-chosen: “become.”

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A singing man and woman exchange knowing looks.

Tyler Marshall and Elizabeth Curtin in “Edges.”
(Doug Catiller / Chance Theater)

'Edges'

Where: Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends Aug. 8
Tickets: $42-$49
Info: (888) 455-4212, chancetheater.com
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes


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