Review | Dear Evan Hansen: a musical for today

Orpheum Theatre through June 9

Stephen Christopher Anthony (center) as Evan, with the cast of “Dear Evan Hansen”

“Dear Evan Hansen” has arrived in Minneapolis and it’s a hot ticket; the Orpheum Theatre was packed for opening night. Winner of multiple 2017 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Score, the show astonishing technical flash with a moving story that cuts to the heart of our deepest fears: loneliness, isolation, irrelevance.

Evan Hansen, a seriously anxious teen in therapy, is supposed to write letters to himself about what will be good in his life each day, and if that’s not a setup for a conflict, I don’t know what is – especially one involving teenagers. Evan is not unloved; his mother (Jessica Phillips) hovers and fusses, but she’s not home much, and Evan has a lot of time to himself. He obsesses about how to interact with others, to matter at all to anyone, to not have sweaty hands. “No one deserves to disappear,” he sings at last, echoing the thoughts of other “weird kids” at his high school.

A troubled student, Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) happens to see a “Dear Evan Hansen” letter that reveals Evan’s crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe, which he (of course) misinterprets, takes the letter and stuffs it in his pocket. Within a week, Connor has taken his own life; the letter is found. Evan can’t bear to admit his interest in Zoe, so he fabricates a friendship with Connor, and the snowball begins to roll. He doesn’t mean to lie, but he does, and it builds. Oh, does it build. At first, he’s truly helping people, but social media kicks in, the story explodes, and things turn ugly.

The plot twists in this book by Steven Levenson are ingenious, surfacing with such precise timing that we almost see them coming, but not quite. Yes, it’s farfetched, but not that far, especially given the enormous potential of social media that we’ve all witnessed. What this show does amazingly well is capitalize on irony, letting the audience inside the web of lies and deceit that’s powered by the characters’ longings and heartaches. It’s fascinating to follow, and I was so ready for the expected powerhouse ending. That, unfortunately, didn’t quite happen.

The songs support the energy and tension building in the story with luscious music and incisive lyrics (Benj Pasek, Justin Paul). For a while. By the end of Act I, I have to say that the songs were blurring together. If I had heard any one of them as a standalone, I know I could not help but be impressed by the writers’ wonderful craft and talent. But ultimately, the songs were so similar that by Act II, I thought I had heard them all before.

With such gorgeous singing and moving performances, especially by Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan and Maggie McKenna as Zoe, it doesn’t seem right to give the technical aspects star billing, but this is really a small show put on a big stage. There are no big chorus numbers (although I expected to see a chorus of high school kids that never materialized). The “big chorus” backing these actors is an astonishing mashup of screens, scrims, lighting and projections. It’s absolutely stunning. Not easy for a cast of eight to front that!

But the show touches a tender spot and makes us see not kids with problems, but real people who are hurting and who need our love and support. That is surely its finest accomplishment.

Recommended!

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