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Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at National Arts Centre

Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at National Arts Centre

It's one of those shows where the audience can go home and reflect for a while on what they have just seen

Dear Evan Hansen
Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), John Hemphill (Larry Murphy), Lili Thomas (Cynthia Murphy), Alaina Anderson (Zoe Murphy), in the 2022-2023 North American Tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN.
Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The opening night performance of Dear Evan Hansen at the National Arts Centre lacked some of the buzz that was palpable at Hamilton a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps that was because of pent-up excitement for Hamilton following two years of pandemic-related delays or maybe it's because Hamilton is still widely considered one of the hottest shows around. Normally there would be a bigger gap between shows, but thanks to the pandemic, Broadway Across Canada's 2021-2022 season has been condensed into a shorter time frame (Aside: not that I'm complaining - the more shows, the better, if you ask me). The beautiful thing about Broadway shows is that no two shows are alike, and the audience can appreciate each on its own merit.

Dear Evan Hansen follows the story of Evan (Anthony Norman), an anxious, reclusive teen who, as part of an assignment from his therapist, must write a self-addressed letter to give himself a pep talk, outlining all the reasons why the day will be great. Not exactly feeling it, Evan instead writes a heartfelt message about his vast loneliness, his unrequited crush on Zoe Murphy (Alaina Anderson), and openly questions whether anyone would notice if he disappeared. Connor Murphy (Ian Coursey), a stereotypical black clad, drug-addicted, bully bad boy, finds Evan's letter on a printer and, after he glimpses his sister's name in the letter, he takes off with it. A couple of days later, Evan is called to the principal's office, where he is greeted by Connor's parents, Larry and Cynthia (John Hemphill and Lili Thomas). Evan learns that Connor has committed suicide and the "Dear Evan Hansen" letter was found in his pocket. Naturally, they think the letter was Connor's suicide note intended for Evan. Evan initially tries to set the record straight but ends up letting Connor's parents believe the lie, thinking it will be a kindness to them. Meanwhile, Evan's mother, Heidi (Coleen Sexton), is a single mom who works during the day and often goes to school at night. Since she isn't home much, she doesn't realize that Evan is spending more and more time at Connor's house. Evan's budding relationship with the Murphy's is one of give and take. Evan helps Connor's parents find solace in the (albeit fake) memories and correspondence that Evan provides to them. In return, Evan feels like he is part of a united family, with the added bonus of being able to finally talk to Zoe.

Evan is aided and abetted in the lie by his classmates, Jared (Pablo David Laucerica) and Alana (Micaela Lamas), knowingly and unknowingly, as the case may be. Although Evan, Jared and Alana can sometimes be a little difficult to connect with, as they are all at least partially motivated by selfishness, they redeem themselves with the Connor Project, a fundraiser with the goal of purchasing an apple orchard to be used as a space for reflection and to ensure that Connor's memory is never forgotten. Of course, the longer this goes on, the more unsustainable the lie becomes, and it invariably blows up in the second act.

The acting by the entire cast was truly incredible. Although their experience levels are quite varied, this was one of the most even casts I have ever seen in a touring production. I would be hard pressed to choose any one individual as a stand-out, but it must be noted that Norman's performance as the socially awkward Evan was utterly convincing, with small affectations and quirks adding to the authenticity. Also, Hemphill's silent portrayal of Larry Murphy's tough shell finally cracking and succumbing to his grief was absolutely gut wrenching.

Lyrically, the music advances the narrative perfectly, but some of the songs are rather forgettable, with only a couple of truly great numbers in the show. Highlights were the hilarious and superbly choreographed "Sincerely, Me" and the deeply emotional "You Will Be Found", both executed perfectly by the cast, with the latter enhanced through the use of background screens showing perpetually scrolling social media feeds. "So Big/So Small" was sung poignantly to Evan by Heidi and was effectively used to help calm him (and the audience) down when the lie became too overwhelming.

Dear Evan Hansen
Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), Coleen Sexton (Heidi Hansen) in the 2022-2023 North American Tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN.
Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Where the show really succeeds is in its well orchestrated story arc and in its overall messaging that no one is immune from anxiety, insecurity, depression, and dark thoughts. Moreover, the people closest to us may be completely unaware or feel powerless to help. All the characters have issues, and their problems are true reflections of life. Personally, I would have liked a little more insight into Connor's character background and what drove him to his actions. However, it is refreshing to see a musical that tackles difficult subject matters and manages to pull it off without being preachy. For me, a hallmark of a great show is when the audience can go home and reflect for a while on what they have just seen; Dear Evan Hansen definitely delivers in that regard.

Dear Evan Hansen
Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen).
Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

With the timing of Dear Evan Hansen in Ottawa right before a new school year, I encourage parents to take their teenagers to see it. Not only will they relate to the characters, but it may encourage them to have conversations about mental health.

You can see Broadway Across Canada's presentation of Dear Evan Hansen through August 14th at the National Arts Centre. To buy tickets or for more information, click here.

In the spirit of making theatre more accessible to audiences, Broadway Across Canada announced a digital lottery for every performance of Dear Evan Hansen. Lottery winners will be able to purchase up to two tickets at a reduced rate of $25 per ticket. Entrants are encouraged to follow Dear Evan Hansen on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for additional lottery news and information.. More information can be found here.



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