I wish that "Dear Evan Hansen" had existed when I was a teenager.
As a youth constantly plagued with self-doubt, anxiety, the beginnings of what would become severe depression and constant feelings of extreme loneliness, I can definitely identify with the titular protagonist of the Tony Award-winning musical. The national tour of "Dear Evan Hansen" is playing at Bass Concert Hall through Dec. 15, courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts.
What begins as something of a teen comedy about the inability for high school students to connect with their families, or even with one another, very quickly takes a tragic turn that explores deep, emotional questions of mental health, insecurity and the relative morality of truth and lies, all of which are vital issues for younger audiences to grapple with.
The show debuted on Broadway the year after "Hamilton" and quickly gained a similar sort of cult following, even though the two musicals are worlds apart in scope, tone and style. "Dear Evan Hansen" tells a relatively small story — Evan, a troubled teenage boy, is mistaken for the best friend of another troubled boy, Connor, who committed suicide. What begins as white lies to help a grieving family quickly snowballs out of control.
The brilliance of Steven Levenson’s book and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics, though, is the way in which the show perfectly balances approachable comedy and the very heavy questions raised by the material. Though some moments are uproariously funny, the creative team clearly takes this subject quite seriously. The entire package ultimately is a message of hope directed towards those who feel like they can’t go on another day.
That it manages to be wildly entertaining is a testament both to the writers and to director Michael Greif, whose social media-wrapped staging frequently places his actors alone onstage with giant screens, reminiscent of the kinds that constantly surround us in our daily lives. These screens can be both menace and savior. The message of self-acceptance at the heart of the story attempts to provide a way to escape from the pressures of our eternally online modern life.
The projections, of course, are only backdrops to the remarkable performances of the cast. Though there was much talk about whether the show could survive the departure of original lead Ben Platt, there clearly was nothing to worry about. Stephen Christopher Anthony is remarkable as Evan, equally adept at comedic timing and conveying charming neuroses as he is at portraying painful self-loathing and insecurity.
He is matched by another breathtaking performance, that of Jessica E. Sherman as his mother, Heidi, whose desire to connect with her son is so palpable it almost is a physical entity. This culminates in a heartbreaking, stunning solo near the end of the play that gets to the heart of maternal love.
Other performances of note include the unassuming straightforwardness (with an undercurrent of deep pain) of Stephanie La Rochelle as Connor’s sister, Zoe, and the confused grief, painful mourning and misplaced aggression of Claire Rankin and John Hemphill as Connor’s parents, Cynthia and Larry.
"Dear Evan Hansen" is a deeply emotional piece of theater with universal appeal that will register with most audience members. For teenagers, though, this show has the potential to provide a crucial message of hope that is so often lacking in other media, and one that just might prove to be life-saving to those who need that message the most.