A stage set for the opening scene with no rising curtain, Dear Evan Hansen suddenly began with a whirl of scrolling, amplified screens blown up in 3D, putting emphasis on a younger, social media dependent generation. Immediately we see into Evan Hansen’s POV, a lone teenager suffering with social anxiety and depression. There’s a beat and then a thinly nuanced reference to his mental illness becomes comic. In theatre, it’s often relative to turn struggles into laughter. But for all that it’s lauded to be, with six Tony awards under its belt including Best Musical, the celebrated show’s storyline still proves to be problematic in some ways.
Early on, tragedy occurs. His outcast classmate, Connor Murphy, whom he had essentially one interaction with, takes his own life. Suddenly Evan finds himself at the epicenter of an intricately, fabricated lie, and he doesn’t plan on coming clean anytime soon. He invents a lie so monumental and viral that it fits the idyllic narrative of he and Connor being best buds. Evan befriends the late Connor’s family, getting closer to his sister Zoe as he shares ersatz memories of Connor’s friendship. In the process he creates the illusion with fake emails and fraudulent stories to make his claim seem believable. No one likes a liar or condones willful deceit, and Evan, despite his mental illness, is no exemption to pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes, no matter how positive his intentions.
If the storyline is inherently flawed with an amoral premise at its center, (there’s nary a redemption arc but rather one of growth and sympathy for the protagonist struggling with his mental health, justifying the choices he makes,) then the music score and poignantly crafted numbers are its saving grace. Hauntingly beautiful melodies accompany a lone guitar or piano, with swelling company numbers and soaring, unified vocals. While it’s never appropriate to poke fun at suicide, DEH brings the comedy in “Sincerely Me,” and somehow it earnestly ties up strategically constructed subterfuge into one smart little package. “You Will Be Found,” is a rousing anthem of sorts and “I Will Sing No Requiem,” is one of the most well performed songs in the entire show. The book is by Tony-award winning Steven Levenson, with music by Grammy, Tony, Oscar, and Golden Globe-award winning songwriting duo Ben Pasek and Justin Paul. The score is catchy and beloved, which makes sense as it’s from the same team who composed The Greatest Showman.
Each character is fleshed out with strong, organic acting choices, and belts that reach into the stratosphere. Stephen Christopher Anthony (Book of Mormon, Catch Me If You Can,) is a bright, emerging star as Evan. His authentic and organic delivery as he emotes and narrates conveys the invisible struggles of someone coping every day with anxiety and depression. Other notable talents are CCMA award-nominated singer-songwriter Stephanie La Rochelle, with her sincere, smooth vocals, and Ciara Alyse Harris, who is a burgeoning powerhouse performer waiting to have her moment. Claire Rankin and John Hemphill give heartfelt, touching performances as grieving parents Cynthia and Larry Murphy.
Things to take away from the production: Dear Evan Hansen is complex and does not carry a black and white message. It’s a modern and relatable tale about the human condition with a stellar and uber talented cast who have the foresight that what they are doing each night is bigger than themselves. The intent to erase the stigma of mental illness is a commendable effort and a dialogue more people should be having. The need to have these serious conversations is vital, especially for a whole generation navigating mental health crisis. It’s a show of representation for the broken, the lonely, and the misunderstood. The stigma of mental health is real, and it doesn’t shy away from bringing awareness to it.
The impact of social media, “going viral,” and propelling forth a movement to never forget those lost to us is a powerful testament to this generation and how technology can fuel change.
On a personal note, while the recommended attendee age is 12, it’s not exactly family friendly. There is outright profanity (F-bombs, and other crude language), parents should be aware of, along with multiple adult sexual themes and overt drug references.
Other takeaways: throughout the show we get that Evan is trying to shed light on the cause and we see that he is attempting to do good (at least by his own merit). But does he ever right his wrongs or make amends? Was there ever accountability and atonement for the actions that left others hurt? This question of morality really remains to be seen and is a question to ponder leaving the theatre.
Dear Evan Hansen runs through January 2nd at the Orpheum Theatre. Masks are required and social distancing is strongly encouraged. Arrive early to allow time for parking with large crowds.