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BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN Spotlights The Importance of Community and Acceptance


Dear Evan Hansen encourages smiles and laughs, steals gasps and tears, and teaches one of life’s most important lessons–we all have a place in this world.

Dear Evan Hansen

It's time to put down your device to jump right into the live feed of Evan Hansen's complicated situation. This hilarious, heart wrenching musical invites you into a high school hallway full of young people looking for a place to belong. Dear Evan Hansen encourages smiles and laughs, steals gasps and tears, and teaches one of life's most important lessons-we all have a place in this world.

After finding my seat in the beautiful theater, I made sure my phone was on Do Not Disturb mode. This was when I noticed familiar sounds coming from the loudspeakers. I couldn't help but chuckle when I realized that despite silencing my phone and tucking it away under my seat, there were text and newsfeed sound effects periodically chiming. So much for unplugging for a night at the theater! Up on stage there were tall, gorgeous, glass pillars that were being used as projection screens. Newsfeeds were being projected on these pillars up until showtime.

Suddenly, a roaring ringtone sounded over the speakers to begin the show. As the volume increased, the lights went down, and a myriad of recorded voices filled the room. The feed continued scrolling on the glass pillars, and we listened to the chaotic voices of the people behind those scrolling fingers-people looking for their next Like, Haha, or life update post about an acquaintance from high school getting married.

The action began as the audience watched two families simultaneously developing onstage. Two mothers, paralleling one another, are trying their best to connect with their sons as the school year begins. It was already clear how different these two young men were, but we were about to learn even more about them as the setting shifted to their high school hallways. As a high school teacher, I know there is plenty of banter that occurs in the hallways, and for the most part, it's healthy banter; however, when Evan's "family friend" made a comment about a student looking "school shooter chic," all I could do was roll my eyes and shake my head. It will never be funny to me.

Any person attending this performance could infer that Evan Hansen, played by Sam Primack (who embodied the angsty teen almost too well) would be a major character in the story, but this became visibly evident the moment he was illuminated by a bright spotlight while others were circled around him in the shadows. I didn't know it at the time, but this moment was brilliantly foreshadowing the spotlight Evan would soon be in due to a quick turn of events and despite his introverted nature. Watching Evan maneuver this complicated, somewhat twisted situation was both beautiful and bothersome. I found myself feeling supportive and rooting for him, but then I would think about the gravity of the situation and wonder why I felt that way. I guess it's hard not to root for someone struggling to find their place in a big world that can sometimes make us feel small.

Sam Primack perfectly matched his mannerisms with his character's progression of maturity throughout the performance. As Evan experienced more and found himself further consumed in a unique situation, there were times when he physically seemed more confident and was willing to share his thoughts. There was one stunning moment when Primack depicted a severe panic attack, sitting on the ground and scooting to the outskirts of the spotlight to make his arm cast, marked with "CONNOR" written in large letters, the focal point of the scene. Grimly projected above him was half Connor's face. Connor's character, played by Nikhil Saboo, was the thread that weaved through every moment in this performance. Saboo's depiction of this nuanced character was incredible. Each time he appeared on stage he helped the audience understand a different part of Connor. Without his performance, the plot and theater experience would have suffered. Evan's panic attack overseen by Connor's image was a gut wrenching moment for the audience, and it was only effective because of the expert acting of Sam Primack and Nikhil Saboo.

Remember that "family friend" who so effectively upset me? That was Alessandro Costantini playing Jared Kleinman, the tech savvy high schooler looking for an opportunity to put his talents to use. At first I viewed him as ruthless and sneaky, but that changed when he was part of one of my favorite musical numbers, "Sincerely, Me." This tune was joyful and upbeat, harshly contrasting the distressing situation the young men found themselves in; regardless, I was bobbing my head to the beat. What I loved about this part of the performance was the display of young men seemingly having fun together. In the midst of the chaotic situation Evan finds himself in, there is this beautiful moment of male friendship. They poke fun at this a bit, which made me giggle, but truthfully, it was refreshing to see some representation of young men being friendly with one another. We don't see enough of that in the media. Another impressively irritating character was Haile Ferrier playing Alana Beck. Ferrier played this chipper role annoyingly well. Alana is smart and passionate, but she tends to be a bother with her constant interruptions and attempts to be a part of every interaction. Despite these annoyances, I was incredibly impressed by Alana's emotional solo. Her voice deepened, allowing her to release the emotions she has been suppressing. Each of these high school-aged characters was nuanced; I was constantly thinking about my own students and the personal journeys they are currently taking.

Yes, this story focuses on young adults, but the mothers of these young people were just as significant in the emotional impact on the audience. Jessica E. Sherman looked natural in her role as Heidi Hansen, the hardworking, goofy, and apologetically absent mother of Evan. Toward the end of the second Act she reminded Evan, and the audience, that she "isn't going anywhere," even though Evan felt like he had no one left. Sherman's performance was stunning. It made me want to squeeze my mom! Connor's mother, Cynthia, was played by Claire Rankin, who brilliantly portrayed the wide spectrum of emotions a mother can feel. Cynthia did have a special place in Evan's life, but her most important role was providing a strong representation of how a grieving mother might seek comfort. These two actors, Sherman and Rankin, were perfectly casted for the mothers they portrayed, and the recurring parallelism between them added a layer to the audience's understanding of their families.

It was interesting to watch Connor's family throughout the play because they not only contributed to Evan's development, but they grew as their own people. Stephanie La Rochelle played the tender, yet passionate Zoe Murphy, Connor's sister. Zoe is clearly a sweet, smart girl, and she is not afraid to speak her mind when she believes something needs to be said. La Rochelle did a spectacular job portraying this high school character with her occasionally shy mannerisms and big heart. Connor's mother and sister were often in the spotlight, but his father, Larry Murphy, had the most profound character development. John Hemphill perfectly played the role of Larry, slowly evolving as the performance progressed. At first he struck me as a side character who was not noteworthy but necessary; I felt completely different by the end of the performance. Hemphill powerfully depicted the various stages of grief, inviting the audience to witness this difficult process and how it unfolds differently for everyone.

Dear Evan Hansen is full of beautiful musical numbers, but there were two that captured every ounce of my attention-"Disappear" and "You Will Be Found." There were layers of power in these songs-power in numbers and power in message. "Disappear" was performed by seven of the cast members while "You Will Be Found" was performed by all eight. The magnitude of all of their voices was enough to bring me to the edge of my seat, and the message they were sharing-YOU MATTER-was what made these songs the most important of the evening. The impact of these songs was tangible; everyone in the theater could feel it.

I couldn't have been as invested in the performance without the impressive use of scenery and sound. The glass pillars were a unique method for transporting the audience to different settings, whether that was in a living room, bedroom, or in the abstract world of a newsfeed. When the setting and tone of the music would shift, so would the mood of the scene. I became more invested in the story each time the characters were transported to another location. This was most evident at the end of the performance when silhouettes of small trees contrasted against the soft yet extraordinary blue background. The significance of this moment is difficult to describe; it's something you will have to go see for yourself.

The synchronized use of the glass pillars and the handiwork of the technical crew emphasized how characters effortlessly shifted between their real lives and the virtual world. They would be speaking to each other face-to-face one moment, and within seconds they were standing in the middle of a small, blue square, speaking into the void that is known as the internet. The seamlessness of these transitions forced me to think about how often we do this in everyday life; we scroll, look up, smile, say "hello" to someone on the sidewalk, and then immediately continue scrolling in hopes of finding a juicy Facebook argument to read. This reflection was a result of the technicalities of the show, and it wouldn't have crossed my mind without the skillful tech crew behind it all.

The cast and crew of Dear Evan Hansen put on a spectacular, entertaining performance, but more importantly, they offered an important message-you belong. This was the thread through all of the laughs, cringes, gasps, and tears. If you are feeling alone, or if you know someone who is, I encourage you to go see this show. It serves as a reminder that every single person is fighting some sort of uphill battle, and even though that battle might seem insignificant to you, it is everything to that person. So, head to Bass Performance Hall for Dear Evan Hansen, and if you can't, take a moment to reach out to a friend and let them know you aren't going anywhere. Remember, if you are lost, #YOUWILLBEFOUND.


Bass Performance Hall January 6-9. Purchase tickets through the Bass Performance Hall website.

Photo: Matthew Murphy, 2019

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