By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The cautionary tale of a lie spun out of control, teenage angst, suicide and the impact of the Internet is at the heart of Dear Evan Hansen, the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Musical. This past week, local audiences were able to witness for themselves the intersection of darkness and light found in the imaginative and compelling work of composers and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book writer Steven Levenson.
It’s that imagery of being in the darkness, succumbing to the lies and not being true to himself that defines the journey for the titular Evan ( a remarkable Stephen Christopher Anthony) and repeats itself throughout the musical’s two and a half hours. We follow his movement from the brooding darkness of uncertainty and lack of commitment into the light of truthfulness and the fullness of the sun that embodies being a self-assured and confident member of society. The music and lyrics are exquisite examples of the best of writing for contemporary Broadway theatre and coupled with the inventive and elaborate book, Dear Evan Hansen does not disappoint its audience.(Spoiler alert: Because of the complex nature of the show’s book, this review, henceforth, contains information which will reveal portion’s of the show’s plot.)
We first meet Evan, wearing a pristine cast on his broken left arm. Unsettled and unsure of himself, he has comes up with a plan of retreat rather than one of action to guide him. In “Waving Through a Window,” he expresses his desire to withdraw from life rather than to be an active participant.
“I’ve learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me.”
As a disconnected teenager at risk from a home without a father figure, Evan undergoes therapy and is prodded by his therapist to write himself notes of encouragement as a means of building up his confidence and self-worth. Evan’s single, overworked and overwrought mother Heidi (Jessica Sherman) tries her best to be supportive. Wanting her only son to break out of his shell, she reminds him to keep writing these “pep talks” to himself. “I’m proud of you already,” she tells his assuredly.
At school he composes one of these “Dear Evan Hansen” notes with specific references to Zoe Murphy, a junior for whom he secretly pines as well as veiled hints towards an uncertain future. “Would anybody even notice if I disappeared tomorrow?,” the note inquires.
This personal missive is intended only for his eyes, but somehow it is erringly printed in a computer lab and discovered by Zoe’s abrasive and bullying older brother Connor. He challenges Evan and in acts of defiance and impudence pushes him to the ground and mockingly signs his cast “CONNOR” in giant block letters with a Sharpie for all his schoolmates to see.
Sometime shortly thereafter, Connor Murphy (Noah Kieserman) takes his own life with Evan’s cryptic note still in his breast pocket signed “Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend, Me.”
Since there was no other note left behind, it is mistakenly taken as an unclear explanation for his suicide and the quite specific salutation to Evan and ambiguous closing puzzles both the Murphy family and Connor’s grief stricken friends at school.
Rather than admit to the truth and confess to the embarrassment that the note was penned by himself to be a confidence builder, Evan “confesses” he and Connor had enjoyed a secret friendship, when pressed by them. He uses this invented friendship as a means to become more popular in the eyes of his schoolmates, to get closer to and comfort the grieving parents Larry and Cynthia Murphy (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin), but especially to engage socially with Zoe (a terrific Stephanie La Rochelle).
In “For Forever” Evan recounts a perfect day in the recent past where the two of them spent time climbing trees in an abandoned orchard with the sun shining bright in the sky.
“All we see is sky for forever
We let the world pass by for forever
Feels like we could go on for forever
We see Evan is also acting out of compassion for the Murphys, who are dealing with the loss and overwhelming guilt surrounding Connor. It was on that day and at that orchard where Evan suffered the fall and resulting broken arm, he claims. It was Connor who came to his rescue, making the signed cast an ever more important indicator of their friendship and building an emotional bond with the Murphys.
To further carry off this subterfuge, Evan enlists his “family friend,” Jared Kleinman (a funny Alessandro Costantini) to create a backlog of scripted and backdated emails designed to reinforce the supposition of this secret relationship between him and Connor. Pasek and Paul turn out a humor-filled trio between Jared, Evan and an imaginary Connor in “Sincerely, Me.” As the email becomes more specific with references to Connor’s supposedly seeking advice from Evan and his reaching out to Evan about his unhappiness, the three end up jumping up and down for joy proclaiming in a chorus:
“‘Cause all that it take is a little reinvention
It’s easy to change if you give it your attention
All you gotta do
Is just believe you can be who you wanna be…
Evan becomes more distant from his mother as he begins to spend more of his time with the Murphys and Zoe in particular. His false memories of this fictitious friendship brings them closure and redeems and softens Connor’s anti-social behavior. The Murphys sing of this mournfully in “Requiem,” an anthem in which they openly question their scorn towards him.
Spending more time with Zoe than he ever dreamed possible before, Evan is emboldened to manufacture unsaid brotherly affection by Connor in the plaintive “If I Could Tell Her,” in which he substitutes his own feelings and attributes them to her deceased brother. The sparks between the two begin to increase.
Meanwhile, as Evan connects to the Murphys, his imaginary friend Connor becomes a more fully-realized creation. He and Evan engage in an imagined conversation in “Disappear,” a remarkable song which emerges from Evan’s own feelings of alienation and wanting to be accepted. He superimposes these feelings onto Connor, who, as he sings, implores Evan to keep his memory alive (“No one deserves to be forgotten, No one deserves to fade away.”)
As Evan’s faux connection to Connor becomes more pronounced in full view of his schoolmates, he becomes, somewhat surprisingly, more popular. The autographed cast is acknowledgment that their friendship was genuine, after all. A website is created in Connor’s honor for Jared to capitalize on the wave of sympathy being generated and The Connor Project is born: a real website based on one big lie which has generated many more lies in its wake.
One of Evan’s classmates, Alana Beck (Samantha Williams), like many at her school, feels the need to contribute to the worthy endeavor. She and Evan become self-appointed co-presidents of The Connor Project and she goes about hoping to generate more interest through the intervention of social media. Evan makes a speech before the school trumpeting the merits of contributing to The Connor Project and the videotape is placed on the Internet by her, where it goes viral and generates thousands of views.
In “You Will Be Found,” Pasek and Paul engage the cast led by Evan to engage with the most altruistic of intentions and honor the memories of the unknown and under-appreciated members of society. It is an uplifting, almost spiritual approach to caring for the downtrodden so that they will not feel the same kind of disenfranchisement and separation that drove Connor to take his own life.
The combination of multi-media presentation and powerful images of people across the cyber universe making connections to one another coupled with the cast and their mellifluous harmony is palpable. The beautifully envisioned choreography by Danny Mefford works well with the incredibly inventive stage and production designs of David Korins and Peter Nigrini. The brilliant sound design by Nevin Steinberg incorporates beautifully with the stunning lighting design of Japhy Weideman. By the time the first act ends, Evan has found the ideal replacement parents he lacked in the Murphys, newfound popularity and acceptance at school and, perhaps most importantly, a budding romance with Zoe. The last dissonant notes suggest an ominous end as act one ends.
Act Two devolves about Evan’s vindication and eventual coming clean as his lies begin to unravel and his imagined friendship becomes too much for him to maintain. This eventual illumination is what drives the characters in Dear Evan Hansen as they move past more direct connections to Evan. In “To Break in a Glove” it’s all about Evan connecting to a dispirited and disappointed Larry Murphy and the opportunity to enjoy a father-son relationship neither had enjoyed previously.
In “Only Us” the relationship between Evan and Zoe blossoms, which creates even more of a divide within himself. The love in her heart is based on fabrication and smoke and mirrors. Heidi, his detached mother, is horrified to learn of some of Evan’s lies and she realizes he has replaced her role in his life with the more stable and dependable Murphys. In “Good For You” she unleashes her reproval as only a disappointed mom can:
“Well I’m sorry you had rough
And I’m sorry I’m not enough
Thank God they rescued you.“
While Jared enjoyed some financial rewards from The Connor Project’s website, he becomes increasingly alienated from Evan and jealously looks to expand upon Evan’s lies and enhance his worth in the minds of his student populace by inventing another fake relationship. Alana keeps questioning Evan and pressing him about why Connor took his own life when Evan’s friendship was making him more grounded.
The final confession is revealed in “Words Fail,” where Evan breaks down and admits that everything he said about Connor was fiction, but not intended to hurt anyone. In the end, though, the very real campaign to buy the orchard where Evan and Connor shared that fictional day, continues to build momentum. Something good does come from Evan’s gross falsehoods and Zoe and the Murphy family find solace in going there to commune with nature and connect to the spirit of their lost son. Above all, though, they move on as they all learn to let go of “Connor.”
Even Heidi and Evan find a renewed and stronger relationship built on truth and not affected by unrealistic expectations. In the tender ballad “So Big, So Small” featuring Sherman as the exasperated mother, she sings of her attempt to be a good parent in the face of divorce and trying to keep a roof over their heads. Evan eventually understands that his coming into the light means he must engage with her and everyone else in order to enjoy his life and realistically connect to others.
That journey from darkness to light, from perdition to redemption is what gives Dear Evan Hansen its spiritual lift and resonates so effectively with its audiences, many of whom are members of GenX, Y and Z. When he allows the sun’s rays to bathe him fully and truth guides his actions, he becomes a fruitful and productive member of society and an engaged family member. Finally, he comes to terms with the fact that lies make for a poor foundation for anything in life and he finds satisfaction in that as he concludes to the reprise of the chorus from “For Forever”:
“Dear Evan Hansen:
Today is going to be a good day and here’s why.
Because today no matter what else, today at least…
you’re you. No hiding, no lying. Just…you.
And that’s… that’s enough.”
The national tour of Dear Evan Hansen continues with scheduled runs in Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and San Diego through the end of the year. Originally scheduled to appear at the Saenger Theater, the New Orleans run was produced by Broadway in New Orleans and ran from November 5 – 10 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. The two acts run two hours and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets, click here.
Director: Michael Greif
Composers/Lyricists: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book: Steven Levenson
Music Supervisor: Alex Lacamoire
Choreography: Danny Mefford
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Scenic Design: David Korins
Production Design: Peter Nigrini
Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg