Trigger warning: This post contains topics that may be triggering for some readers, including suicide and self harm.
They say art resembles life. But in the flashy, high-energy world of musical theater, this honest integrity can sometimes get lost behind the sparkly costumes and high-kick choreography. Thankfully, this is not the case for “Dear Evan Hansen.” This gut-wrenching, uplifting, heartbreaking musical is bold without being brash and courageous without being cocky.
Directed by Michael Greif, this Tony Award-winning musical tells the story of lonely teenager Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) and his desperate desire to be accepted for all that he is, and perhaps more importantly, all that he is not. While the idea of the awkward loner kid is not a new one, Anthony manages to bring a fresh sort of authenticity to the role. With a nervous, fidgety sort of physicality, he plays Evan’s deep-rooted insecurities and frantic panic at even the slightest social interaction in a refreshingly honest and lovable kind of way.
In an effort to boost Evan’s positivity and outlook on life after he breaks his arm, his therapist tasks him with writing daily pep-talk letters to himself. As he is writing a letter at school, fellow loner Connor Murphy (Nikhil Saboo) offers to sign the cast on Evan’s arm in big, bold letters. But after finding Evan’s letter on the printer, he snatches it up and walks away with the letter in his pocket.
As Evan wonders if anyone would miss him, Anthony begins his tear-jerking number “Waving Through a Window” and effectively breaks every heart in the room. Full of so much power and yet so much insecurity, this song about being on the outside looking in is made even more emotional by the incredible, poignant staging from choreographer Danny Mefford.
But it is soon revealed that Connor’s emotional turmoil, although masked behind a gruff, cruel exterior, runs deeper than Evan’s, and he commits suicide. After Evan’s note to himself is found in Connor’s pocket, everyone believes it is a suicide note addressed to Evan from his friend. In a desperate attempt to connect to their son and see him for more than the angry loner he was, Connor’s parents reach out to Evan in the hopes of finding light in the darkness.
Although Evan initially tries to tell them the truth, he gives into the lie and fabricates a deep friendship with Connor. While his motives start as compassionate – he can tell Connor’s parents are desperate to see their son as someone other than an alienated, angry teenager – they are also self-serving. Evan harbors a longtime crush on Connor’s sister Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle), and uses Connor’s death as an opportunity to get close to her.
And yet, despite all the lies and ways Evan uses the Murphy family, we can’t help but view him as a sympathetic character. Anthony just looks like he needs a hug, and manages to create a story so believable, it’s easy to forgive him. At first.
With the help of his loudmouth family friend Jared Kleinman (Alessandro Costantini) and bossy overachiever (think early Hermione Granger) Alana Beck (Ciara Alyse Harris), they create a social media campaign titled The Connor Project after Evan’s speech for Connor at a school assembly goes viral. It is here that the production itself makes a powerful statement about social media and technology in the 21st century. As video clips and tweets flash across the stage (thanks to projection designer Peter Nigrini), “Dear Evan Hansen” examines not only the positive influence of instant connection, but also the idea that social media is fleeting and often an inaccurate reflection of reality that can spin out of control.
As Evan’s web of lies grows more and more complicated, the actors’ performances get better and better. Anthony and bad boy Saboo have incredible (and hilarious) chemistry together, and Costantini provides perfectly timed snarky quips of hilarity as Evan enlists him to create fake emails between him and Connor.
The adults in the production are equally as impressive, with John Hemphill as Connor’s father Larry Murphy and Claire Rankin as his mother Cynthia Murphy. Jessica E. Sherman shines as Evan’s mother Heidi, with a performance that is just lovely and delicate while also finding a balance between strength and vulnerability. Her number “So Big/So Small” is highly underrated when compared to the rest of the score (which is hauntingly beautiful, thanks to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), but is jaw-dropping just the same. La Rochelle shines as the tortured Zoe – who knew her brother as nothing but nasty and mean – and plays the character with honesty and sincerity without sacrificing any of the vocal oomph we love to see from our leading ladies.
Of course, one cannot discuss “Dear Evan Hansen” without discussing the Act I finale, “You Will Be Found.” The song itself has taken on a life of its own since the production opened on Broadway in 2016. But seeing it performed in context is something else entirely and is quite possibly the most moving thing I have ever seen on stage. Never, and I do mean never, have I heard so many sobs and sniffles during or after a performance.
At first, a musical about teen suicide, depression, and lies not only seems bleak, but downright unwatchable. But I promise, “Dear Evan Hansen” is so much more. With a laugh-out-loud book from Steven Levenson, the musical is able to both tread incredibly lightly and still force audiences to come face to face with uncomfortable issues. It's
the cathartic purge we all need while still managing to be incredibly uplifting and inspiring, appealing to anyone (re: everyone) that has ever felt like they are “on the outside looking in.”
“Dear Evan Hansen” contains language that may not be suitable for young audiences and is recommended for ages 12 and up. The production also contains themes that may be triggering for some viewers. The production runs at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore through March 20, 2022 and tickets can be purchased here. The production runs 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
All photo credit to Matthew Murphy