BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Hennepin Theatre Trust
Once in a blue moon there is a musical for the generations that speaks to people of all walks of life. It brings a tear to your eye, a smile across your face, a relatable sense of realism and purpose. The cultural phenomenon that is the musical Dear Evan Hansen burst onto the scene and quickly gained a huge following. It grew to higher success after being nominated for a total of nine Tony awards, winning six of them including Best Musical. It truly is changing the game on how we view musical theatre and I couldn't be happier that I got a chance to see it and witness the power it has over audiences.
Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of the title character who lives everyday with the struggles of an unseen illness. His social anxiety disorder keeps him from connecting with everyone including his mother at times. As he begins his senior year, he writes a letter to himself (hints the title) at the request of his therapist where he emotes about feeling like finally giving up. When a classmate of his commits suicide, Evan becomes entangled at the center of the tragedy after trying to comfort the classmates family and fabricates a story on how they were good friends.
The web becomes more complicated and the hole goes deeper as Evan continues to weave the lie after his social life skyrockets, he lands the girl of his dreams and also is no longer invisible to the rest of his classmates. However eventually what goes up, must come down and Evan has to make the hardest decision of his life -- telling the truth.
Plays are fantastic and musicals are amazing. The magic of theatre is truly life changing for so many, myself included but Dear Evan Hansen does something that not a lot of musicals can successfully do. The book by Steven Levenson is paced like a musical with the help of the music and lyrics by Grammy, Oscar and Tony award winning team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul but there is something different about it. It's a contemporary story and has the feeling of a play. From the characters we get to know, to the plot and the themes. It's the best of both worlds and something I hope to see more of in mainstream Broadway.
What I love about Dear Evan Hansen the commitment it makes to telling the story of mental health and every facet of it. It also does an incredible job of fully encompassing these disorders and how it impacts the person diagnosed, the family, friends and all of their lives. Society has been slowly stripping the stigma of mental health over the last decade or so however it's becoming harder especially in a digital age of social media which the plot brings up. While I'm not at all ashamed of it, I don't talk about it too much but I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a little over two years ago. To see a musical that talks about these issues in a realistic way that also involves family dynamics, communication in a digital age and how social media is truly changed our day to day lives is so inspiring.
It's the first time in a while that I've truly connected with lyrics of a show. The lyrics mean something to everyone but for someone who has struggled and dealt with mental illness, they hit close to home. Many who have some sort of mental illness may tell you it's hard to explain what life is like. Whether it's bipolar, anxiety, depression, it all is hard to put into words however this award winning team has done it with songs like Waving Through a Window and You Will Be Found.
The cast tells the story beautifully through such conviction and truth, always honoring the character and the stories they are living. Evan's Mother Heidi, played by Jessica Phillips, is powerful and times she did feel like a strong mother who would do anything for her son but suddenly within the second act she felt lost. This however is no reflection on the performance of Phillips who had me shedding a tear during many of her ballads and monologues about being a mother.
When I saw the show, the alternate was in for the title role of Evan Hansen and he was truly incredible. Stephen Christopher Anthony was real and honest in his portrayal of Evan. Watching him perform was very much like looking in a mirror as I understood many of the feelings and struggles he was going through. Some of these are so unseen by the naked eye however Anthony brings them to light in a respectful and meaningful way. This role is one that requires so much more than memorizing lines and songs. Anthony completes this character with nervous ticks that help physicalize his disorder of social anxiety with fast talking, pulling at his shirt and playing with his hands along with rarely making eye contact with characters.
Dear Evan Hansen is a cultural phenomena and will surely be touring and playing on Broadway for some time still. With it's realistic plot, relatable characters and intricately written music, it has already made its mark on the musical theatre community and history. After the curtain fell, I fell in love with this new contemporary story and as I wrote this review with the music playing in the background I realized just how much I enjoyed it. It is easily in my list of top favorite musicals and I can't wait for more people to experience it.
Dear Evan Hansen plays at the Orpheum Theatre through Hennepin Theatre Trust now through June 9.