– By Cate Marquis –
One of Broadways’ biggest hits DEAR EVAN HANSEN makes it way to the Fox Theater, for a run through Nov. 3. The musical won six Tonys and a Grammy, and has become a pop culture phenomenon. While the central character, Evan Hansen, is a teenager struggling with the usual difficulties of high school as well as his crippling social anxiety, this is a story about parents as well as teens, a story that reaches across age groups. While social media plays a big role in what happens, it is not about social media but a more universal story that reaches across time periods as well.
Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) lives with his mom Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman), a single parent who seems perpetually busy with work as a nurse’s aide and her night school. She clearly loves her son and means well, but her schedule is hectic as she supports them both, which means she sometimes misses meals with him and is a bit distracted. Evan is seeing a therapist to help with his social anxiety, and as a exercise to build self-confidence, he is supposed to write encouraging letters to himself, as a kind of diary of his daily experiences, letters that begin “Dear Evan Hansen” and which he signs “me.”
No matter your age, everyone can relate to the high school experience, a time of uncertainties, of cliques and judgmental peers, as well as a time of strong friendships as everyone tries to find their direction in life. Evan’s one friend at school is his cousin Jared (Alessandro Costantini). Jared is only kind of a friend, constantly reminding Evan he is only a “family friend” and making fun of him for being “weird.” Jared is a bit mean but has tech skills and it isn’t clear how many friends he has, but Jared is the only one at school who talks to Evan or seems to know he’s there.
Nonetheless, Evan has a crush on a girl, Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle), whose scary-looking brother Connor (Noah Kieserman) is the only kid at school who the other kids find even stranger than Evan. In fact, they are rather afraid of Connor, who has a reputation for threatening a teacher a few years back.
Evan broke his arm in a fall from a tree over the summer, and his mother suggests he get kids to sign his cast as a way to break the ice. Evan thinks immediately of Zoe, and approaches her but he can’t quite get the words out. Still, he attracts the attention of her brother Connor. Connor signs the cast in huge letters, and then snatches away the letter Evan is writing to himself.
When Connor commits suicide later that day, the letter is found in his pocket, and his parents assume the letter was from him to Evan and misunderstand the contents’ meaning. His affluent, heart-broken parents Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Claire Rankin) Murphy jump on the idea that Evan was their son’s only friend, albeit a secret one, and want to draw Evan into their family. Evan goes along, mostly because it lets him get close to Zoe, but partly because the Connors seem to him to be the kind of ideal family he lacks, although they aren’t really. At first he just plays along, but soon he begins inventing tales about his friendship with Connor.
What unfolds is a situation that keeps getting more complicated, particularly in the age of social media. As word gets out via the kids at school, particularly student Alana Beck (Ciara Alyse Harris), a bouncy, peppy organizer and promoter of causes who is eager to be involved in everything but collects acquaintances rather than making friends as she would prefer. Alana feels the need to keep everyone informed via social media, and soon the story of their secret friendship spreads across the country. Reveling in the attention, Evan gets bolder and makes up stories about himself and Connor that touch everyone’s heart, as everything spins out of control.
Jared helps Evan in this deception but also and acts as a kind of Greek chorus in the play, letting us know what the other kids are saying or doing, as does Alana. It is not just the teens at school who are drawn in by Evan’s stories but Connor’s grieving parents and then the whole county. The story explores complex aspects of grief, family, the need to belong and human connections, not just in adolescence but adulthood.
The staging of the production is striking, with the actors on stage with a few props but the theatrical space under the proscenium arch dominated by every-shifting projections, representing Twitter feeds, and pop-ups of comments online, along with the enlarged projections of the hand-written letters. The huge projections convey the power of social media and the meaning giving the misinterpreted letters, as they loom over the action on stage. Periodically, the projections switch to narrow windows, through which we glimpses grass and trees in the outside world, used in more emotionally-intimate scenes. The change in backdrop both allows us to focus on the actors and adds a sense of being closed-in by events, while hopeful open spaces are just outside.
Trees and an orchard that used to be a local attraction are part of the story, figure heavily in the plot, seeming to symbolize the world beyond their lives as well as the promise of the future and warm memories of the past.
The music is tunefully pleasant and there is a a lot of meaning packed into the lyrics. The musical’s big break out hit “You Will Be Found,” is the stand-out, sung by Anthony as Evan and the company. The songs often express inner feelings and thoughts, making them very moving, and they are delivered with expressive emotion by all the cast.
Broadway hit DEAR EVAN HANSEN is an emotionally powerful show, with a human message that transcends social media or a particular time and place. It is a moving tale of family tale no one should miss.
© Cate Marquis