Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Connor Palace

Superlative touring DEAR EVAN HANSEN is an absolutely must see!

By: May. 17, 2023
Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Connor Palace

Rogers and Hammerstein's "OKLAHOMA" ushered in the era of book-centric American musicals that have been designated as "musical comedies." The beginning, middle and ending structured stories normally contain singing, dancing, show stoppers, comedy, a few conflicts, and a satisfying ending, in a two-act format.

In the near recent-present, ushered in by "RENT" shows like "COME FROM AWAY," "THE COLOR PURPLE" and "SPRING AWAKENING" have brought the genre to a new probing of sociological and psychological issues including schizophrenia, incest, rape, homosexuality and social responsibility, thus ushering in the format of the "musical drama." These scripts center on dramatic story-telling and less glitz, spectacle and contrived story lines. They often contain some humor, but the emphasis is on realism and societal investigation.

"DEAR EVAN HANSEN," now on stage at the Connor Palace, has to be ranked, along with "HAMILTON" and "NEXT TO NORMAL" in the top three of musicals of that genre. It shines its spotlight on social anxiety, suicide, family angst, and teenage drug addiction as major plot issues.

The musical is loosely based on an incident that took place during the musical's composer and lyricist Benj Pasek's high school days, when a teenager invented an important role for himself, leading to credit that he did not earn and, therefore, did not deserve.
The show's musical sound is that of pop-contemporary musical theatre, borrowing format elements from modern compositions. It is art songs and narrative story-telling.

This is not the style of Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe, but that of new voices, such writers as Jason Robert Brown ("PARADE" and "LAST FIVE YEARS"), Jonathan Larson ("RENT"), Lin-Manuel Miranda ("IN THE HEIGHTS" and "HAMILTON"), and Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey ("NEXT TO NORMAL"). Their music uses pop and rock to tell provocative, boundary-pushing stories.

The story of "DEAR EVAN HANSEN" centers on a teenager with social anxiety. Upon the advice of his therapist, in order to expose himself to the positive parts of life, Evan writes letters to himself detailing what was "good" about each day.

Besides Evan and his mother, Heidi, Jared, Evan's only "friend," and their attention-starved school-mate, Alana, the story-circle also includes Connor and Zoe Murphy and their parents, Larry and Cynthia.

Conner is a troubled teenage drug-user, with anger management issues. Zoe is the girl that Evan crushes on from afar. In spite of their wealth, the Murphy family is in major crisis and appears to be falling apart due to parental conflicts and Conner's drug and conduct issues.
At school, one day, Connor makes fun of Evan's awkwardness and knocks Evan to the ground. Zoe apologizes for Connor's actions.

That same day Connor encounters Evan again, and unexpectedly offers to sign the cast on the boy's broken arm. Connor accidentally finds one of Evan's self-encouragement letters in the computer lab's printer, reads it, becomes furious at the mention of Zoe, and storms out, taking the letter with him.

Several days later Evan is called to the principal's office and told that Connor has committed suicide. Evan's letter was found in Connor's pocket, but it is assumed to be Connor's suicide note addressed to "his friend Evan," since it started, "Dear Evan Hansen" and was signed "Me."

Evan is invited to the Murphy house to explain his supposed friendship with Connor. Though he intends to "nod and confirm" to avoid making things worse, Evan, in a fit of panic, lies, pretending he and Connor had been best friends, emailing each other from a secret account.

Thus, the story spins into a tale of humorous, but mainly angst-laden misinterpretations, a growing closeness of Evan and Zoe, an on-line fund raiser to honor Connor, growing conflict between Evan and his mother, and Evan admitting his lack of friendship with Connor.

The emotional tale ends as Evan admits to finally being at peace with who he is.

"DEAR EVAN HANSEN," which opened on Broadway in December 2016 to universal rave reviews, was nominated for nine Tony awards, and won six statues, including those for Best Musical and Best Score.

On March 12, 2020, the show suspended production due to the COVID pandemic.

Performances resumed on December 11, 2021. The show closed its Broadway run on September 18, 2022 after 1,678 regular performances. The script will soon be released for local professional and then collegiate and community theatre performances.

Before that happens, and we are inundated with amateur productions of this fine script, the touring company, like the one now in CLE, will finish their professional runs.

The touring production is mesmerizing. The quality of this tour, is everything that the Broadway version was. The technical aspects and the quality of the performances are of the highest level!

From the opening number, "Anybody Have a Map?," to Connor's I want/am song, "Waving Through a Window," to the emotion-draining "Requiem" and finally to the first act ending, the gut-wrenching "You Will Be Found," which found many in the audience vocally sobbing, the show is an emotional roller-coaster.

The second act, though well done, is somewhat anti-climactic. Part of the issue is that it lacks the humor and drama of the opening stanza. Secondly, the pacing is slower, and finally, though the song "Finale" is affirming, much of the play's final spoken speech, given by Coleen Sexton, as Evan's mother, was lost in a low volume mumble.

Tiny, sensitive Anthony Norman, is spell-binding in his development of the socially inept Evan. He visually has the weight of the world on his slender shoulders and pounding in his troubled head. He gives his own spin to the role, totally immersing himself into the psyche of the ego-weak Evan. He didn't portray Evan, he was Evan! He didn't just sing songs, he presented meanings to the words of the score. Bravo!

(Side notes: Having seen Tony winner Ben Platt on Broadway as Evan, local audiences can be assured that Norman's is his near-equal.)

The rest of the cast is equally strong. August Emerson is angst-right as the conflicted, moody Connor.

Pierce Wheeler is delightful as Jared Kleinman, the sex-obsessed, computer nerd, and Evan's only friend.

Michaela Lamas was properly self-centered as Alana.

As the adults, John Hemphill (Larry), Lili Thomas (Cynthia) and Coleen Sexton (Heidi) all nicely textured their roles.

For the younger generation, the extensive use of newsfeed, and computer and I-phone communication, will illuminate "life-as-it-is." Others might find the constant bombardment of visual stimulation to be over-load. The changes aren't a-comin', they are here! The growing use of computer-generated sets and special effects, like the contemporary musical sounds, is part of what makes for the modern musical drama.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: "DEAR EVAN HANSEN" is a mesmerizing evening of contemporary musical theater. Complete with pop-contemporary music sounds, staged with narrative story-telling tunes, and a relevant story line, it is one of the finest examples of the new wave of musical dramas. Don't go expecting show-stoppers and an escapist plot. This is life as it is being lived, with all its angst and issues. The touring production, with choreography by Danny Mefford and direction by Michael Greif, is standing ovation worthy and is an absolutely must see!!

"DEAR EVAN HANSEN" runs only May 21, 2023 through as part of the Huntington Featured Performance Series. To purchase tickets, visit Click Here, call 216-241-6000 or go to


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Roy Berko, a life-long Clevelander, holds degrees, through the doctorate from Kent State, University of Michigan and The Pennsylvania State University. Roy was an actor for many years, appearing in mo... (read more about this author)


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