Dear Evan Hansen opened Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023, in Salt Lake City, at the Eccles Theater, to a sold-out crowd eagerly awaiting one of the most highly lauded musicals of Broadway at the Eccles’s Season.
At the moment of the orchestra’s downbeat, the spotlight pierces the darkness and Evan is illuminated, sitting alone In a state of palpable anxiety. And it is here, through the opening song Evan (played with breathtaking clarity by Anthony Norman) begins his mournful journey from a nerdy, friendless teenager to a social media phenom, compelled forward by the insatiable hunger of confused and bewildered classmates. But Dear Evan Hansen is a story that reaches far beyond and deeper than the anxiety-ridden teen and his faux friendship with drug addled and suicidal Connor Murphy, another high school outcast.
It is a story of Evan’s escape from the purgatory of isolation, the yearning for acceptance and the anxiety-filled quest for connection. This is a story of the human condition. And the audience responded to the pathos of Evan’s struggle with knowing acceptance.
Winner of six Tony awards, Dear Evan Hansen has won numerous other awards including the Drama League Award for Outstanding Musical Production and for the off-Broadway production, two Obie Awards, a Drama Desk Award and two Outer Critics Circle Awards, and two Helen Hayes Awards.
Michael Greif, the veteran director of Rent, guides the inspiring book by Steven Levenson and the haunting, yet exhilarating score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to its ultimate nuanced conclusion.
The opening number, “Anybody Have a Map”, shows Evan through his mother Heidi’s eyes (played by the strong presence of Coleen Sexton). A single mother, she’s struggling to keep the household ship afloat by working days as a nurse and taking night classes to become a paralegal. The choices she’s forced to make as the family’s sole breadwinner and Evan’s watchful caregiver are rife with conflict. She’s absent from Evan’s life, yet attempts to compensate by an overarching domination of his struggle.
Underneath the thick layers of insecurity, Evan yearns desperately for affection, affection that ultimately spells trouble for its seeker.
A chance encounter with Connor Murphy (a stunning, powerhouse performance by August Emerson), a drug addled, friendless high schooler, alters the course of events and Evan’s life forever changes.
Connor finds Evan in the computer room printing out his daily assignment, an “atta-boy” letter Evan’s therapist advises him to write, thus the play’s title Dear Evan Hansen. The letter is seized by Connor in a mean-spirited attempt at humiliation, coupled by his mocking signing of the cast on Evan’s broken arm. Later that night, in a final act of desperation, Connor Murphy commits suicide.
Devastated by the loss yet buoyed by the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter found in Connor’s belongings, his parents assume that in his final moments Connor has found a true friend in Evan, and his life ended not with a dirge but with a melody.
As news of Connor’s suicide spreads throughout the school, Evan conceives a memorial, the “Connor Project.” The idea usurped by Alana (played with remarkable energy by Micaela Lamas), an over-compensating student who appoints herself co-president of the “Connor Project,” leaving Evan once again on the periphery of inclusion.
And the stage is set for a spiral of falsities and half-truths, out of which Evan emerges as a storyteller of his friendship with the dead Connor. Weaving together fabricated bits and pieces, Evan and his “family friend” Jared Kleinman (a superbly animated performance by Pablo David Lauderica) embellish the story to feed the growing Connor Project’s popularity and support.
Persuaded to speak at the Connor Project’s school assembly, Evan wilts into a pile of anxiety and fear. In an act of near disintegration, he fumbles his notes and hides In the shadows of the stage. And here Evan rises to meet the challenge in the moving and evocative “For Forever.”
It is through the award-winning score that the story’s powerful depth and profound quest for significance emerge. The music itself is the reason to see Dear Evan Hansen. It radiates the power of longing and conveys a sense of acceptance and determination that words alone cannot convey.
As the story unfolds, punctuated by the score, Evan finds grace in his spiraling falsehood, a sense of purpose and belonging; that is until his “Connor Project” message finds an eager platform on social media and immediately goes viral, eliciting “likes” in the hundreds of thousands. Evan and Connor’s story quickly turns into a fund-raising saga for the entrepreneurial-minded Alana and the clever Jared.
The captivating scenic design by David Korins and projection design by Peter Nigrini aptly set the stage backdrop in motion with projected social media platforms scrolling, rolling, repeating “shares,” “likes” and headlines to underscore its overwhelming power of persuasion.
As Evan benefits from feeding off of Connor’s fading memories, he builds a stronger, more confident version of himself. And as he’s embraced by Connor’s parents (in extraordinary performances by Lili Thomas as Cynthia Murphy and John Hemphill as Larry Murphy) he finds the nurturing attention his mother cannot provide. His fragility ebbs, yet he’s haunted by the lies. The deceit weighs down on him. In one final act of redemption for the charade he’s created, he confesses to Cynthia and Larry. And his dreams of finding love in the arms of Connor’s sister Zoe (a gentle performance by Alaina Anderson) dissolve in the brimstone of truth.
Evan’s confession releases him from the onerous burdens of his fabrications. But remarkably, Larry and Cynthia choose to keep the Connor and Evan story of friendship alive, and in doing so to keep Connor’s memory alive.
As the story reaches its denouement, Evan comes to represent an Oracle to whom each character reveals his or her own fears and loss of connection, for each of them in their own way—as each of us in the audience—have felt the ravages of isolation and loneliness in our lives
The story and the themes it explores are both current and timeless. And it does so through the inspiring and memorable score.
In “Finale” the music reaches a crescendo as the cast sings:
All we see is light / Watch the sun burn bright / We could be alright for forever / This way / All we see is sky for forever / All I see is sky for forever
THE TOURING CAST: Anthony Norman as Evan Hansen; Alaina Anderson as Zoe Murphy; Coleen Sexton as Heidi Hansen; Lili Thomas as Cynthia Murphy; August Emerson as Connor Murphy; John Hemphill as Larry Murphy; Pablo David Laucerica as Jared Kleinman; Micaela Lamas as Alana Beck.
- What: Dear Evan Hansen
- When: Through March 5, 2023
- Where: The George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Theater
- How to go: Tickets and more info are available at saltlakecountyarts.org