BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN Reinvents The Musical At Broadway At The Hobby Center
DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a marketing triumph - a slick show that has appealed to social media minded youth and one that has received critical acclaim including the Tony for best musical in 2017. This tour presented by Memorial Hermann and Broadway at the Hobby Center is a chance to catch the brave pop opera in person to see what all the fuss is about. I have never seen so many teenagers crowding into the theater eager to take selfies with the show's posters and marketing materials. It is a triumph of acting, singing, and features technologically impressive sets that come to life as Facebook and Instagram threads spin madly around characters. I loved the production, but one thing nagged at me personally throughout the performance.
The show revolves around a socially awkward teenager named Evan Hansen who is struggling on his first day of his senior year in high school. He displays an intense social anxiety that his mother is concerned will impede him as Evan navigates college and life. At school he runs into stoner and rebel Connor Murphy who in an act of strange spontaneous kindness signs Evan's arm cast simply so they "can both pretend to have a friend". But within moments Connor finds a letter Evan has written to himself on a library printer about his crush on the burnout's sister. In anger he confronts Evan, and leaves in a huff with the note wadded up in his coat. Mysteriously Connor commits suicide that day without any explanation. Evan's note is found, and the parents believe the two were close friends. Evan begins to spin out a lie to get in tight with the family, and also to get to know the girl he has a crush on. Things escalate when Evan makes a speech at the high school eulogizing Connor that goes viral all over social media on a national level. Suddenly Connor is a symbol of hope, and Evan Hansen is an ambassador and hero to lonely kids everywhere. All of this spins out of control because of a singular lie meant to comfort grieving parents.
The troop also has to act very well to pull this complex story off that Steven Levenson has crafted. Stephen Christopher Anthony captures Evan Hansen's cagey charisma both in word and song quite well. He is utterly convincing at every moment, and his vocal delivery is spot on whether that be during line readings or during the show's demanding pop arias. He is up to the hype of the role and acquits himself marvelously. Jessica Sherman plays Evan's mother, and she absolutely decimates the audience with her heartbreaking rendition of "So Big/So Small" at the emotional climax. Claire Rankin portrays Connor's mother equally well, and manages to wrangle out all the tangible grief one would expect from losing a son. Stephanie La Rochelle, Noah Kiserman, Alessandro Costantini, and Samantha Williams all make believable high schoolers who can sing along to discourse on social media and high school politics.
It's certainly not your typical musical in concept, and the score is crafted by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who have given the songs a pop rock treatment that works with the demographics of the cast and audience. There is not a traditional orchestra, but rather a group of musicians on a platform upstage to the left that accompany the cast. They all have a nice sheen to them, and anthems such as "You Will Be Found" are stirring and emotionally complex. The show requires singers who can take on tough pop vocal delivery, and everyone in this touring cast is well suited for the challenge.
Technically the stage is quite busy with projections of social media feeds married with elaborate lighting and neat sets that fly in and out quickly. It must be a marvel to pull this off every night, and on opening there were one or two hiccups that even caused a slight pause in act one. But if it is whirling and going David Korins' set combined with Peter Nigrini's projections are as much a voice as any of the cast characters.
It was amazing to see DEAR EVAN HANSEN with an enthusiastic audience. Many of the teens sang along with the show or at least mouthed the words as the performance played out. People were visibly touched by the situations and reduced to tears at several points. And yet I felt oddly removed from the experience, and kept wondering why. Here was an amazing cast singing well crafted songs and turning in believable performances. But I couldn't get over the show's plot starts with a suicide of a character that never gets explained or explored. It is almost trivialized by Evan's lies as he "reinvents" a very personal tragedy for a family, a school, and social media. He alters the narrative, and as a result all of the good will and comfort for loners, misfits, and nerds is based on manipulation and deception. The parents are removed from this, the students are complicit in it, and at the end of the day Evan Hansen doesn't seem like a hero. It is all shrugged off with a "Who cares if this is all fake news as long as it makes people FEEL better!" I'm not sure I want teenagers thinking that the way to be loved and to conquer your anxieties is to craft lies around human tragedy. I almost prefer the satire of HEATHERS where there are consequences to trying to rally death and grief for your own gain.
Despite my misgivings with some of the narrative DEAR EVAN HANSEN has dedicated fans that adore it. You can't deny its power in today's world especially with teens. I do wonder how it might age in a couple of decades, and if it will be regarded as something classic or flawed. Does it reveal our better nature or exploit our gullibility to believe feel good moments on social media regardless of truth? Do we create our own fiction to deal with our shortcomings? DEAR EVAN HANSEN doesn't have any answers, but it does have an anthem about acceptance despite any of those perceived character flaws. And this production of it is carefully thought out, beautifully sung, excellently acted, and well worth a look if you are curious.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN plays at the Hobby Center through November 24th. Tickets and more information can be found at www.thehobbycenter.org . The show runs about two and a half hours and has one fifteen minute intermission. There is a digital lottery that can be found by going to www.dearevanhansen.com