BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Broadway In Portland
When you walk into the Keller Auditorium for DEAR EVAN HANSEN, the stage is already lit up with scrolling social media feeds. It makes you immediately aware of the digital environment in which young people grow up today and how it can make both good things better and bad things worse.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN, which has won a slew of awards, including Tonys and a Grammy, is a modern coming-of-age story. It deals with mental health issues (which are on the rise among children and teenagers), drug use, suicide, and the desperate need of people (of all ages) to feel like they belong.
The musical tells the story of a small lie that spirals out of control. Evan, a lonely high school senior dealing with anxiety and depression, has been tasked by his therapist with writing himself a letter every day that begins, "Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a good day. And here's why:..."
One fateful day, however, the letter starts out like this: "Dear Evan Hansen, Turns out this wasn't an amazing day after all. This isn't going to be an amazing week or an amazing year, because why would it be?" It then goes on to speculate whether anyone would even notice if he disappeared.
Evan's letter is taken from him by Connor Murphy, another school outsider. When Connor kills himself, his parents find the letter and mistake it for their son's suicide note. Not knowing how to tell them the truth, Evan invents a friendship with Connor. For a while, the lie comforts the Murphys and brings Evan all kinds of things he thought he'd never have -- friends, a father figure, a girlfriend. But then, inevitably, it all comes crashing down.
The show explores a vast geography of pain -- Evan's anxiety and depression, his mother's anguish at seeing her son struggle, the Murphys' grief over losing a child. It would be easy to oversimplify these issues, but thanks to the hauntingly beautiful score and director Michael Greif's minimalist approach to staging, DEAR EVAN HANSEN is able to address these issues in a way that's more subtle and nuanced than flashy musicals on big stages can typically achieve. It's sensitive, insightful, and ultimately empowering.
The cast of the traveling production, headed by Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan, is excellent. Especially the mothers. Played by Jessica E. Sherman and Claire Rankin, respectively, Evan's and Connor's mothers are, in different ways, powerless to help their suffering children. It could be because I'm roughly their age, but it was these women's performances that best conveyed all of the messy emotions that are part and parcel of being human.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN runs through February 8. I'd been waiting for years for a chance to see this show. As a musical lover and former teenager, and I thought it was extraordinary. More details and tickets here.