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Rachel Bay Jones catches the zeitgeist

by Jim Gladstone

Rachel Bay Jones: "Members of the audience and I begin with something in common," a love of "Dear Evan Hansen." Photo: Courtesy the subject
Rachel Bay Jones: "Members of the audience and I begin with something in common," a love of "Dear Evan Hansen." Photo: Courtesy the subject  

Rachel Bay Jones' reputation precedes her. Well, sort of.

The Tony-winning actress arrives in San Francisco later this month on the coattails of more than four years playing the title character's loving, struggling single mother in "Dear Evan Hansen." After originating the role in the musical's first production at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Jones continued to New York with the show, playing Heidi Hansen at Second Stage and then on Broadway, in an award-winning 21-month run that just ended this past August.

A seasoned actress, Jones, now 48, made her Broadway debut in 1989's "Meet Me in St. Louis." But she's quick to acknowledge that it's the zeitgeist-catching success of "Dear Evan Hansen" that serves as her calling card as she takes her cabaret show on the road. Following performances in Indiana and Detroit, San Francisco will be the most theater-savvy market Jones has played her solo act thus far.

"I'm still figuring it out," admits Jones, who is by no means a household name, even in musical-loving households. "People come to these concerts having seen 'Evan Hansen' or listened to the album or because their kid loves it. But they need an introduction to me." Her evolving set list includes songs from "Hansen" and other musicals she's performed in, but also songs that are close to her heart by Lyle Lovett, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell.

"What's wonderful, though," she says, "is that the members of the audience and I begin with something in common. We share a deep appreciation of that incredible show."

Along with legions of "Fansens," Jones feels strong personal resonance with "Dear Evan Hansen." As the single mother of a 15-year-old daughter, she understands the characters' fraught relationship with social media.

"Look, I have a social media presence. And I love the feeling it provides of having a family that extends beyond the people who are physically near. That ties into a way I really feel about this world," says Jones. "But then my daughter and I just had an argument about Snapchat this morning. My greatest sorrow is when we're not really present for each other."

Also, like the musical's title character, Jones has struggled with near-crippling degrees of social discomfort.

"I'm a really shy person," she explains. "I'm fine once I'm up on the stage performing, but after my first Broadway part I developed a lot of panic and anxiety around the search for jobs, the parties and the social aspects of the business. For many years it kind of made me crumble. I ran away from New York despite the satisfaction I got from the work itself."

Jones describes herself as having been "constantly in and out of theater over the two decades between 1989 and 2009." She spent time living in South Florida, Austin, Asheville and Maui. "I did a little bit of everything," she recalls. "I worked in health food stores, vet clinics. I thought I might want to be a veterinarian, but the blood-and-guts part was too painful. I had fantasies about being a marine biologist. But everywhere I went, I found myself drawn back toward theater."

Jones took an international acting gig in a German-language Berlin production of "Rent," and did a U.S. tour of "Fiddler on the Roof."

"I wanted to keep ramming my head against that wall of anxiety until I broke through. But I also had to keep stepping away to nurse my wounds."

Since 2009, when Jones was cast in the Broadway revival of "Hair," she's found herself able to stay in the acting game, moving on to the musical adaptation of "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," then a national tour of "A Christmas Story," then Broadway's "Pippin" revival, and finally, the development and success of "Dear Evan Hansen."

"The effects of 'Evan Hansen' on my career are obvious. It presents you to the world in a beautiful light, and people are more open to talking to you," says Jones, who not only won a Best Featured Actress Tony, but also shared company Grammy and Emmy wins for the cast album and a performance on "The Today Show."

"But even more immeasurably huge," she says, "is what it's done for me as a person and an artist. It's given me a chance to think philosophically about why I do this. To really ruminate on what it means to spend eight shows a week for years, living with this person who is not me.

"I've learned so much about the relationships and energy between myself and other people in a room. There are opportunities for honesty and clarity and connection, between actors and between actor and audience. I've learned to appreciate those opportunities and come to realize that they exist on Broadway, at the grocery store, and at home with my family.

"I never was quite convinced that I wanted to be an actor when I grew up," says Jones. "But I think I've made that decision."

Rachel Bay Jones, Fri. & Sat., Oct. 26 & 27, 8 p.m. Feinstein's at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., SF. Tickets ($48.75-$85): www.feinsteinsatthenikko.com.

Rachel Bay Jones: "Members of the audience and I begin with something in common," a love of "Dear Evan Hansen." Photo: Courtesy the subject

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