The most important thing to know about DEAR EVAN HANSEN which is playing at Broadway San Diego through January 12th is that you should go well hydrated because you may be in tears by the time you exit the theatre.
The music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of”La La Land” fame) is famous for pulling on heartstrings and reducing audiences to tears before it’s over, and the audience around me was no exception. The strong individual and soaring ensemble voices on songs like “Waving Through a Window”, “You Will Be Found”, and “Sincerely, Me” capture a range of emotions from the profound sense of isolation and hurt, hope and purpose, and even humor that keeps the audience emotionally anchored.
Evan (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is an anxious and nerdy senior in high school who dreams of one day no longer being invisible and fitting in. His supportive divorced, mother (Jessica E. Sherman) is cheering him on, but works as well as goes to school to become a paralegal leaving him alone with his thoughts more often than not during the evenings.
Evan’s therapist has assigned him to write himself a letter every day starting with “Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a good day and here’s why…” as a way of setting his intention and empowerment for the day. Evan procrastinates and writes the letter at the end of a disappointing school day, where he vents about his day and how the one thing that brings him hope is to one day talk to his crush Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle). Unfortunately, the school troubled teen Connor (Noah Kieserman), and brother of Zoe sees it on the computer lab printer and thinking Evan wrote about Zoe to antagonize Connor takes it from Evan.
When Connor is later found having taken his own life with Evan’s letter in his pocket, Connor’s parents (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin) assume they were friends. Evan plays along with this assumption in an attempt to help the grieving parents and eventually starts fabricating stories and emails to and from Connor with the help of his friend Jared (Alessandro Costantini) to prove the lie true. Though Zoe (La Rochelle) is initially dubious about what Evan is saying, eventually she too is won over by the Connor it seems only Evan knew.
Everything snowballs when a video of Evan at Connor’s memorial goes viral and Evan finds himself invisible no longer.
Anthony makes Evans funny, charming, and heartbreaking all at once, while supported by Sherman as his mother who has some exceptionally moving moments in the second act.
Keiserman as Conner and Constantini are excellent as and provide necessary moments of levity to the story.
Rankin, Hemphill, and La Rochelle, are all strong as the grieving family trying to find their way through this emotional maelstrom to the other side.
More than showing how easy it is to be connected yet alone through social media the show also explores the isolation, anxieties, and the mental and emotional complexities of adolescence decision making.
What starts as a comforting gesture in Evan’s mind to Connor’s parents (and also a situation he couldn’t get out of due to his anxiety) becomes an appropriation of a fellow student’s death and a family’s grief for personal gain. Yet it’s not only Evan who starts to have more covetous tendencies as this deception continues; Jared and classmate Alanna (Samantha Williams) both start to want to benefit from Evan’s actions about Connor.
As the show goes on it starts to feel less inspirational and more like too many plot points and not enough answers. There is no real exploration of the family’s grief, nor is there anything truly explored about Connor. Leading to wonder what their story actually is, both before and after Evan enters their lives. Even once the lies are revealed the consequences are easily swept away without much thought.
Keeping the family as sketches of characters is necessary when the show is continually asking the audience not to see Evan as an opportunist. It allows the spotlight to stay on this misunderstood outsider who just wants to be accepted, and not on the consequences of his actions which makes it easier to continue to love him all the way through the standing ovation.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN has a tremendous cast, some fantastic vocal performances, and the odds are in favor that you’ll tear up at least once. While the plot may have some plot points that feel unresolved or questionable there is no doubt it can be felt like an emotional powerhouse.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN is playing at Broadway San Diego through January 12th. For ticket and showtime information go to www.broadwaysd.com