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Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center

Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Eisenhower Theatre At The Kennedy Center

The production is a part of the 2022 National Tour.

With the Broadway run of Dear Evan Hansen scheduled to end on September 18th, chances to see the six-time Tony Award winning musical on the East Coast will be rare. Washington theatergoers have an excellent opportunity to catch the stellar production of the national tour at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre, running through the end of September. It's an opportunity not to be missed.

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive..." sums up Dear Evan Hansen in a nutshell, with innovative treatments of familiar themes (and some interesting plot twists), set against a backdrop of teen angst and the need to belong.

Dear Evan Hansen
Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen) and Alaina
Anderson (Zoe Murphy) in the 2022-2023 North
American Tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN.
Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

Evan Hansen (Anthony Norman) is a textbook loner, staring down the barrel of another year as a high school non-entity, until a chance encounter with another marginalized classmate (Connor Murphy, played brilliantly by Nikhil Saboo) sets off a chain of events that changes Evan's life, and the lives of those around him. Connor's unexpected suicide, combined with a note of mistaken origin, and Evan's need to bring comfort to Connor's grieving family, lead to an ever-growing series of lies and deceptions that spiral out of control, and force Evan to examine his own motivations and values.

Dear Evan Hansen tackles sensitive mental health subjects like social anxiety, loneliness, teen suicide and dysfunctional families, and features beautiful music and lyrics by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek and a book by Steven Levinson that combines a gentle touch and just enough levity to keep the narrative from becoming maudlin. The musical arrangements are spare and elegant, moving seamlessly from acoustic to rock to string ensemble to create a shifting palette of musical moods.

The show is title character driven, and extraordinarily demanding, both vocally and in terms of the acting required. Norman is mostly up to the task, and acquits himself well, particularly with his acting decisions. He is at his best when he embodies the social anxiety riddled loner side of Evan, subtly shifting to more confident moments in a way that feels very natural. As a singer, he does a good job with one of the most challenging vocal scores in musical theatre, but there are moments when he doesn't seem to be totally comfortable - it's hard to tell if certain phrases fall into transition points between chest voice, head voice or falsetto that are challenging for him, or if he just isn't completely confident with some of the passages. Whatever the reason, it's a minor quibble - Norman has a beautiful voice, and his acting skill allows him to present some of the show's signature songs (Waving Through a Window, For Forever, You Will Be Found, and Words Fail among them) with grace and strength.

Post-suicide, Connor becomes Evan's inner voice, and Saboo plays him with a wry sense of humor, providing a nice contrast to his "angry young man" at the beginning of the play. It would have been nice to see Connor retain some of that acerbic edge in the afterlife, to add some spice to Evan's inner dialogue.

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

Rounding out the cast, Coleen Sexton plays Heidi, Evan's single mother. She has the emotional range to move seamlessly from upbeat cheerleader to concerned parent, and her scene with Connor's parents, Cynthia and Larry (played by Lili Thomas and John Hemphill), is filled with palpable dramatic tension and just the right undercurrent of resentment. Thomas' Cynthia embodies the repressed suburban housewife, and Hemphill's John, a button-down lawyer, is spot-on, which makes his breakdown at the end of the first act all the more moving. He and Evan also share a warm and gentle, father-and-son-in-the-basement moment (To Break in a Glove), where Larry and Evan become surrogates for each other's absent father and son. It's a soft-focus, ordinary scene that provides a relatable moment in the midst of the maelstrom swirling around Evan. Alaina Anderson plays Connor's younger sister Zoe - Evan's secret crush. Watching her relationship with Evan develop is like watching two butterflies fluttering around each other, culminating in Only Us, the lovely duet that showcases how beautifully their voices blend together. Micaela Lamas plays Alana Beck, a stereotypical teenager who masks her own loneliness and insecurity by insinuating herself into the drama surrounding Connor's suicide. Pablo David Laucerica is pure comic relief (and the warped voice of reason) as Jared Kleinman, the "family friend" that Evan recruits to help bolster his growing deception. Laucerica's timing and comic delivery are impeccable, and he steals every scene he's in.

The play space is, in a word, brilliant. David Korin's minimalist scenic design (a bed and lamp, a couch, a dining room table) is seamlessly interwoven with Peter Nigrini's projections - a series of vertical and horizontal panels in various sizes (some of which are frequently moved) that are constantly filled with electronic screen images - text messages, emails, social media pages, videos - that are continuously in motion. Remarkably, the projections add a moving element to the show, but they never distract from the characters on stage. The digital world is a omnipresent, but it never becomes the focus. It augments, and helps keep the show moving, as scenic elements are constantly being whisked on- and off-stage via a system of turntables and tracks. Sound and lighting design (by Nevin Steinberg and Japhy Weideman, respectively) create additional layers of sensory stimulation, and the overall effect is simply dazzling.

Despite a relatively long running time (for a contemporary musical) of two hours and forty minute, the quick scene changes and the energy of the cast keep the show moving at a brisk pace, and the show never drags.

It's not hard to understand why Dear Evan Hansen is so revered. It has all of the elements of a great musical, with a universal storyline, told in a way that makes it accessible for audience members from all walks of life. It should age well, and enjoy numerous revivals - but if you don't catch the current run at the Kennedy Center, it could be a while before a Broadway caliber production passes this way again. (Some adult language and references to mental health and suicide make this show inappropriate for young children, but it is an ideal theatre outing for mature tweens and teens.)

Dear Evan Hansen runs through September 25th at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre. For more information about the Kennedy Center, click here.

Running time is 2:40 minutes, with one intermission.



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From This Author - Ken Kemp

 

Ken Kemp is an actor, director, and producer who has been active in Washington and Baltimore theatre for over 20 years. His work includes Equity and non-Equity, as well independent fil... (read more about this author)


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