The Huntington Featured Performance of ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is superb theater
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youths age 15 to 24. This amounts to over 50,000 deaths in the United States each year with the numbers going up. Nearly 20% of high school students have reported serious thoughts of suicide with 9% making an attempt to take their life. It is a problem that has reached epidemic proportions.
In December of 2016 “Dear Evan Hansen” opened on Broadway to spectacular reviews. The show was forced to close in March of 2020 due to COVID but resumed performances in December of 2021 before closing its initial Broadway run on September 18, 2022 after 1,678 performances with nine Tony Awards nominations and six wins including “Best Musical” and “Best Score.”
While the show is considered a musical it is not your standard “singing-dancing-comedy-happy ending-with a show stopping tune” kind of performance that many flock to see either on Broadway or in the various touring shows. While there are sparks of comedy sprinkled throughout “Dear Evan Hansen” we are dealing with serious subject matter.
The new brash of Broadway shows are working overtime to bring current issues to light. “RENT” dealt with AIDS. “SPRING AWAKENING” dealt with incest. “COME FROM AWAY” dealt with the feeling of powerlessness when suddenly stranded in a foreign land. New shows have dealt with homosexuality, rape, schizophrenia, race relationships, the LGBTQ community and suicide. In these cases, music is used to advance the story rather than dress it up.
“Dear Evan Hansen” deals with much more than teen suicide. It not only touches on the effects that suicide has on the social fabric of family, friends and acquaintances, it also deals with the pressure felt by today’s youth to “fit in” and “feel accepted” by their peers. Those youth suffering from any form of mental challenges often find themselves ostracized and left out of the social circle which in turn increases their anxieties.
Evan Hansen (Anthony Norman) is starting his senior year with his left arm in a cast caused by a summer job accident. Evan suffers from a mild form of social anxiety. This lack of people skills has limited his ability to make friends. He has one “sorta friend” in the form of Jared Kleinman (Pablo David Laucerica). Evan also has a huge secret crush on one of the school’s most popular students, Zoe Murphy (Alaina Anderson) who is way out of his league. Her brother Connor (August Emerson) suffers from some of the same mental challenges as Evan as well as anger issues and drug addiction.
Evan’s mom, Heidi is a divorced mother working in the medical field as well as going to school to be a paralegal so their quality time together is brief. She checks in on her son mainly at night to see if he needs his anti-anxiety meds refilled and to remind him to write a letter to himself. This letter is part of a therapy as laid out by his physiologist in order to recognize what good things have happened in his life that day.
Rather than being an exercise in positive thinking, Evan uses the letter to vent his frustrations starting off by saying how un-amazing the day has been and how the week and year promises to be the same. He then talks about his desperate love for Zoe and how she could change his life. He finishes off by wishing things were different and how he wished he could be a part of something...anything and that no one would notice if he suddenly disappeared. He signs it, “Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend, me.”
Back at school, Connor suddenly shows signs of warped friendship and even signs Evan’s cast (which no one had done so far). Evan ends up in the library to print his letter for this psychologist when Connor finds the letter in the printer and confronts Evan about the part about his sister. Connor storms out with the letter in hand.
A day or so goes by and Evan is summoned to the principle’s office. There he meets Connor’s parents, Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Lili Thomas). Connor has committed suicide and they have Evan’s letter that was found in Connor’s pocket. Connor’s parents assume it was a suicide note that their son had written to Evan. Rather than own up to writing the letter himself, Evan weaves a fabricated story of how he and Connor were best friends.
The Connors invite Evan for supper and soon become his surrogate family while Zoe begins to fall in love with him. Evan has Jared fake a secret e-mail account that is filled with faux e-mails between Connor and Evan. At school, there is much misdirected grief for the boy (Connor) who nobody really liked but now miss and feel guilty about not making an effort to know better. Evan with the help of Alana (Micaela Lamas) whose interest is more in self promotion and Evan’s one friend, Jared, start a GoFundMe to raise $50,000 to purchase an abandoned orchard where Evan claims he and Connor spent many quality hours at. The purpose of “The Connor Project” is to have a lasting memorial to the dead student.
Soon, things begin to become unraveled as lies pile onto lies and everyone begins to question Evan and his claims of friendship to Connor. This is after the Murphy’s offer to pay for Evan’s college fees from money that had been put aside for Connor. Evan is in an extreme dilemma as he could lose it all if found out.
In spite of the dour subject matter this is one of the most exceptional touring shows to hit Playhouse Square. It ranks right up with “Hamilton”, “Rent” and “Frozen.” Opening night’s audience was made up mostly of teens and young college aged youth who were well behaved and paid rapt attention to the show. At one point a total hush fell on the crowd as the father, Larry, came to terms with his grief. I was among many who teared up on that scene.
The acting is exception with Anthony Norman as Evan nailing the part right down to the little idiosyncrasies one would notice in a person with social disorders. Pablo David Laucerica as Jared is the comedy relief with his fractured e-mails and sexual references. Alaina Anderson as Zoe is lovely yet bitter against her brother as she shows a believable love/hate relationship that the two had. John Hemphill as Larry has the most telling roll of all as he first denies his grief then accepts it in one of the most touching scenes ever portrayed. Lili Thomas as Cynthia excels as the mother trying to come to terms with her loss as no one else seems to care about Connor’s death. August Emerson as Connor is the ultimate “bad boy” role and he fills it completely even coming back from the grave to guide Evan. Coleen Sexton as Heidi is perfect as the overtaxed mother and breadwinner who is living in circumstances beyond her control. Micaela Lamas as Alana plays the self centered over achiever whose goal is to check as many boxes as possible as she prepares for college.
The show is tightly directed by Michael Greif. David Korins does an excellent job on the scenic design making full use of the projection designs by Peter Nigrini. Japhy Weideman’s lighting design is low keyed and fits the mood perfectly with a surprise lighting set up at the end that radiates hope. The sound design by Nevin Steinberg was sharp and clear when the actors used their voices to their best abilities. The nine piece orchestra was superb as they blended rather than overtook the singers.
This is a show designed for parents and teenage children alike. It is a production that will open up dialogues between families as the show is totally relatable to everyone. An excellent story line, hard hitting subject matter, great acting, great visuals and great music combine to make this must see theater. Buy the tickets and bring the teens!
The Huntington Featured Performance of “Dear Evan Hansen” will be on stage in the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio through May 21, 2023. for more information and to purchase tickets go to http://playhousesquare.org or call (216) 241-6000.