"Dear Evan Hansen" is making its San Diego debut. Photo by Matthew Murphy
“Dear Evan Hansen” takes a single premise – a misunderstanding over a letter – and exploits it to a vast, illogical and highly emotional conclusion. That narrative-wise the 2016 stage musical is inherently … well, problematic … proves little if any detriment to the impact of actually appreciating its two and a half hours: Many among the opening-night crowd at the Civic Theatre, where Broadway San Diego is presenting a national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen,” cried on and off throughout. This show, written by Steven Levenson with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, won the Tony for Best Musical and seems to have won hearts too because it connects with people on a personal level. It speaks to the chasm of darkness inside those who feel disconnected from those around them, from those who love or supposedly love them, or more frighteningly from the world at large.
Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is a high school boy being raised by his divorced mother (Jessica E. Sherman), his father having split to pursue a new life with a new family back when Evan was 7. The sweet, gangly Evan suffers from social anxiety and over-apologizing to the point that he is in therapy, and among his prescribed psychological treatments is to write letters of affirmation and positivity to himself. When one of them, which among other things expresses his hidden feelings for a girl named Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle), is swiped from him by Zoe’s angry and bullying brother Connor (Noah Kieserman), Evan’s fate (and that of others) will change: Connor takes his own life, and when the letter headed “Dear Evan Hansen” is found in his possession, it is assumed that Evan was the troubled youth’s only friend. What begins for the frazzled Evan as a means of comforting Connor’s grieving (or in denial) family gets quickly out of hand. Lies beget lies beget lies, even as Connor’s family (John Hemphill, Claire Rankin, La Rochelle) draw him close to them.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a dialogue-heavy musical, which can be tricky within the Civic Theatre’s undependable acoustics. But the show’s non-singing sequences allow for essential character development. We get to know not only Evan but his anguished mother in particular more fully than if only in song. The score is melodic and purposeful and dominated by confessional tunes (“Waving Through a Window,” “Requiem,” “If I Could Tell Her”) and the profoundly cathartic “You Will Be Found,” which distinguishes Act 1 and is reprised later.
Because Evan’s plight and the consequences of the misunderstanding (including the commemorative campaign in Connor’s memory that unfolds) are driven by social media, the visuals and digital accoutrements of personal technology make up the very set itself -- dinging and pinging and echoing a chorus of “virtual community voices,” and in so doing cementing “Dear Evan Hansen” as a theatrical product and critical reflection of the digital age. Social media is not new, nor was it when the show opened in 2016, but the seismic complications it has wrought among young people especially are at the foundation of this show.
Anthony is most sympathetic in the role made famous on Broadway by Ben Platt, making Evan less a nerd than a sweet but damaged youth. While the supporting cast is solid around him, no one else strikes the resonant chords that Anthony does, though Sherman comes closest in the painful “So Big/So Small” in Act 2, where Heidi Hansen expresses the desperation any mother out of her depth might express.
Messages here for after the show: Kids, talk to your parents. Parents, talk (and listen) to your kids.
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through Jan. 12 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.