BWW Review: Touring DEAR EVAN HANSEN Sends a Message That Matters
Every so often, a Broadway show comes along that speaks to the present generation. A show that resonates with a powerful, relatable message for the here and now. People lose their minds over such a spectacle because they feel heard and see a glimmer of themselves -- their struggles, hopes, fears -- reflected in art. For that reason, Dear Evan Hansen is an important piece of theater in 2019.
The story, which is a true original by book-writer and Tony Award-winner Steven Levenson, isn't cheerful. But it's more than what it appears at face value, so keep an open mind. Evan Hansen, a high school senior and anxious outsider, is tasked by his therapist to write a letter to himself detailing why today is going to be a good day. The letter begins "Dear Evan Hansen..."
Evan's letter falls into the hands of rage-ridden school bully, Connor Murphy, who absconds with the letter to Evan's chagrin. A few days pass, and we learn that Connor has taken his own life. All that was found on his person: Evan's letter. Confusion abounds as Connor's grieving parents bring Evan the letter, assuming these were Connor's last words to this "Dear Evan Hansen" they'd never heard of before.
What starts as a misunderstanding turns into a lie Evan tells to help the Murphys cope with their sadness and confusion over the loss of their son. The situation snowballs from there -- a string of lies to keep close to Connor's pretty sister Zoe, a hastily-crafted backlog of fake email correspondence between Evan and Connor, and so on. The question raised: If a lie draws smiles and hope, is that lie such a bad thing?
Evan's lies eventually affect much more than the Murphy family. He becomes co-president for The Connor Project, a school organization that goes viral, spreading the message that everyone matters, nobody deserves to be forgotten, and if you fall, you will be found. See? All this good coming from a lie. But you know the other shoe is bound to drop and drop hard.
To dispell the myth, the themes in this show are more than just mental health and suicide. There's a lot to do with parenthood, especially motherhood. Between Evan's mom and Connor's, one is trying to make ends meet while the other is trying to make sense of her circumstances. There's the idea of mothers and sons, or children in general, finding their way back to each other and learning how and when to let go. Grief is another theme, bringing to light that we all process tragedy in our own time and manner.
So can one pack all of this into a musical that works and works well? Dear Evan Hansen won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2017, so that tells you something. Songs with music and lyrics by award-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are certainly memorable, though some more than others. Those "some" -- like chart-topping "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," and "You Will be Found" -- soar incredibly high and have the power to deeply move. It's wonderful to hear those fan-favorite hymns live.
Bringing those songs to life on this Evan Hansen tour is Stephen Christopher Anthony. He's every inch a sympathetic lead and believable nerd -- sweaty palmed, fidgety, full of nervous laughter and introverted body language. It's a brave way to play a leading man, leaning so hard into the "loser" (Evan's word, not mine). This isn't one of those teen movies where the geek takes off their glasses to reveal a suddenly-confident bombshell. Anthony embodies an Evan that's an anxious outsider through and through.
Somehow, through all this nervous introversion, Anthony also nails the reason we're all here: the songs. His delivery rarely feels all-out, rather he kind of sings into himself as you'd expect a shy teen to do. How he can effortlessly flow between octaves without belting his lungs out is astonishing. One wonders what his instrument could do if he turned the dial up a few notches. Still, it's admirable to stay so true to character. Anthony is especially captivating in quiet moments -- a credit to his magnetism, even when playing a kid who feels invisible.
As Connor's sister Zoe, Stephanie La Rochelle is certainly sweet voiced -- so much so, I wish we'd heard more of what her voice could do. Like Anthony, La Rochelle plays a sixteen year-old with lots of realness and subtlety. She too doesn't seem to be singing all-out, rather she's often quiet and a little hard to hear. It's interesting to downplay the drama when the stage and stakes are so big. Whether that's a purposeful creative choice or the fault of the notoriously dicey sound quality at the Marcus Center, I can't say.
For the rest of the cast, they're strong and don't disappoint. Interactions between the spirit of Connor (Noah Kieserman) and Evan are especially fun. The set design relies almost entirely on big black projection screens hanging from the ceiling to create depth and dimension. Sometimes the screens are there to set a mood, projected with words or vague imagery. At the best times, these screens become a dynamic part of the action, flooding the stage with light and movement.
Leaving the theater, I listened hard for the buzz around me. One woman said "fabulous!" The general consensus seemed positive. For me, I enjoyed myself. But I think I was expecting to feel more of an emotional pull than I did. The first act was stronger than the second in both song and feeling -- literally a tough act to follow. That said, people love this musical. People are bowled over with emotion, and I'm an emotional person. What am I missing?
Upon reflection, there are two camps of people who might find Evan Hansen particularly cathartic. One: people who can relate to Evan's sense of isolation. Two: parents, particularly mothers. I conferred with a new-mom friend of mine who was sitting Orchestra Row H at the same performance as me. She said she came away "obsessed" and that the parents angle really got to her. So maybe there's something to my theory.
Either way, this is a musical that speaks to a generation and fills a need for a lot of people. To me, it more so fills a need for a handful of amazing songs to belt in my car. But that doesn't mean I appreciate Evan Hansen's existence any less. It's just that some shows really hit you, while others are left waving through a window.