Evan Hansen’s senior year is not off to a great start. He has no real friends, no girlfriend (though he pines from afar for the gorgeous Zoe Murphy), a strained relationship with his well-meaning but overworked and largely absent single mother, and, oh yeah, he broke his arm over summer break. Lucky guy, all around. At his therapist’s suggestion (and his mother’s urging), he writes a letter to himself about things he has to look forward to for the day, to (try to) start his day off in a positive light. Unfortunately, Zoe’s burnout brother Connor finds his “Dear Evan Hansen” letter (which mentions Zoe by name) on the school printer, flips out, and storms off. When Connor later commits suicide and is found with Evan’s letter in his pocket, everyone mistakes Connor as the author of the letter and assumes Connor and Evan were friends. Seeing the relief in Connor’s grieving parents’ eyes, he goes along with it and tells them what he thinks they want to hear. It’s just one little lie, and a well-meaning one at that. What could possibly go wrong?
Dear Evan Hansen arrives at the Fabulous Fox on its first national tour following a record-breaking Broadway run and with six Tony Awards (including Best Musical), a Grammy, and huge album sales (the highest chart debut by an original cast album in 58 years!) under its belt. The mighty hype train behind the show stresses the show’s uplifting elements and its hashtag-worthy, crowdpleasing theme song, “You Will Be Found.” And yes, the show is uplifting. But its real strength is its ability to instill hope as it spends virtually its entire run time confronting the darker side of life: anxiety, mental health, suicide, dysfunctional families, broken homes, class conflict, the lies we tell each other, and the lies we tell ourselves. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but Dear Evan Hansen tackles it all with amazing sensitivity and heartfelt honesty.
The creative team behind Dear Evan Hansen—book by Steven Levenson (showrunner of the FX TV miniseries Fosse/Verdon), music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and St. Louis native Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman)—pulls a neat trick, using the intermission to virtually split it into two different plays with distinctly different tones. The first act plays as cringe comedy; you root for Evan even as you squirm in your seat, watching him pile lie upon lie—not because he’s ill-natured, but because he’s trying to say what he thinks will please the person in front of him in the moment and not thinking about the ever-escalating consequences. In the second, shorter act, the tone takes a sharp turn toward the dramatic as Evan becomes embroiled in situations that simple fibs can no longer solve. Though the tone is different, these two halves are not at odds with each other, but rather work as a cohesive whole with catharsis that feels (for the most part) fully earned.
The toughest trick Dear Evan Hansen has to pull off is to make us root for Evan despite his bad behavior. Simply put, Evan is a good-hearted kid, but he lies a lot, mostly for the sake of sparing others’ feelings, but there are certainly times where keeping up the lie is completely self-serving. But yet we do end up rooting for him, both because of the songs that delve deep into Evan’s mind and motivation and because of the performance of Stephen Christopher Anthony, who plays Evan with a believable yet endearing anxiousness. He’s a bundle of nerves, stammering through mile-a-minute bursts of nervous word salad, his hands fidgeting as he wipes the sweat from his palms.
Keeping its ensemble down to just eight characters allows Dear Evan Hansen to really explore how Connor’s death affects every aspect of Evan’s life, seamlessly weaving together multiple story threads and giving ample dramatic opportunity for the rest of the uniformly excellent cast. The parents—often afterthoughts in any story starring teenagers—bear an impressive amount of the dramatic weight here. There’s a tug of war between Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman), the single mom who loves Evan but finds it hard to be there for him, and the Murphys (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin), the grieving parents who codependently latch onto Evan to keep the memory of Connor alive. Sherman, in particular, is stellar as Heidi, with a naturalistic performance that grounds her and Evan’s relationship from the very first moments of the play and carries through to “So Big/So Small,” the beating heart of the play’s second act.
The best musicals use their songs to capture the inner thoughts and outsized emotions of their characters. The Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award-winning songwriting team of Pasek and Paul go one step further in capturing the characters through musical genres as well, writing a richly varied score utilizing a small band (hidden in plain view on a balcony on the stage) made up of acoustic guitar, piano, drums, and strings. Many songs have the swelling grandeur of a typical Broadway showtune or the peppy vamps of classic Tin Pan Alley. But listen to the way “Anybody Have a Map?”, the song of parental frustration sung by Sherman and Rankin, uses the kind of Lilith Fair-esque acoustic jangle these two moms definitely listened to in the late ‘90s. (Sherman’s other lead vocal, the kiss-off “Good for You,” keeps the Lilith vibe but adds a nice bit of Meredith Brooks-ian snarl.) Meanwhile, the songs for the teenage characters shift over to blippy bedroom pop (“Waving through a Window”) and modern emo. Song is the main tool the pair use to let us get to know Evan, but with an interesting twist: many of the lyrics he sings are in the voice of Connor, using a boy he never knew as a cipher to say the things he has always wanted to say, or has always wanted someone to say to him. The emotional gymnastics that Stephanie La Rochelle goes through as Zoe watching Evan put his own feelings toward her in Connor’s mouth in the song “If I Could Tell Her” is teenage romance as its absolute finest.
For a small story centered around simple conversations, Dear Evan Hansen is visually impressive. The communication methods of modern teenage life—social media posts, video chats, texts, and emails—are brought to life using video projected on a series of huge vertical panels hanging from the ceiling, which also move around the stage to create separation between characters who are shown onstage at the same time while physically in different places. It’s an impressively simple solution to a host of complex staging requirements. Similarly simple are the sets themselves, typically no more than a piece or two (a bed with a nightstand, or a couch, or a dinner table with chairs) to place the scene. Though the spectacle makes for a theatrical experience, it’s also easy to imagine this play staged in a simple way with just the minimalist sets. This flexibility in presentation along with its universal themes could let this play have a long life, so long as the references to Facebook, Instagram, and Kickstarter don’t quickly turn into anachronisms.
The play does falter a bit toward the end. Evan’s grand emotional pivot as a character comes on one of the play’s weaker songs, “Words Fail,” a song that aims for heartbreak but lands on maudlin. And while it’s not a spoiler to say that Evan’s lies have big consequences (how could they not?), it’s a slight spoiler to say it feels like there should have been even bigger consequences, maybe?
But these are minor quibbles. On balance, Dear Evan Hansen is a real crowdpleaser. Though it goes to some very dark places, the ultimate theme is one of hope, of not giving up because your life matters, even when you make mistakes. Despite its dramatic heft, it’s also frequently laugh-out-loud funny. I would not recommend the play for pre-teen viewers due to the heavy themes, occasional foul language, and stream of I’m-not-gay-not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that gags. But high school-aged teens will likely fall in love with the play and its honest depiction of modern teenage life, and their parents will find much to appreciate in the interplay between the generations. If you get a chance, do yourself a favor and see Dear Evan Hansen while you have the chance. It’s an emotionally uplifting experience that’ll leave you feeling happy and hopeful, and that’s no lie. | Jason Green