“Dear Evan Hansen” does not have a typical premise for a musical: Evan Hansen, a socially clumsy high school student with severe anxiety and a loving but clueless mother, creates a new — and phony — persona for himself as the alleged best friend of a classmate who committed suicide.
If Evan is pretty much a social loser, the suicidal boy, Connor Murphy, was even more of a disaster. A teenage drug addict, who bounced in and out of rehab, he was also an unpopular bully whose violent, antisocial behavior had been a community problem since he threw a desk at a teacher in the 2nd grade.
The story gets kicked off by a bizarre coincidence. Evan, who visits a therapist for his social anxiety, has written an encouraging letter to himself (o it begins “Dear Evan Hansen)” which he happens to be carrying in his pocket at school one day. He also, by coincidence, has recently broken his arm which is in a cast. When he accidentally bumps into Connor in the school hallway, the bully pushes him to the ground and grabs the letter Evan is clutching in his hand. Evan demands its return, but Connor shoves it into his pocket. He then further upsets Evan by offerio sign Evan’s cast — the only person to do so. He signs it in too large printed letters, calling attention to the absence of any other signatures, and struts off, leaving Evan bruised and humiliated.
That would be that, except that very night Connor commits suicide (I told you this isn’t typical Broadway musical stuff) and Connor’s grieving parents discover the letter in Connor’s pocket that begins (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and naturally assume that Connor was writing it to a friend. When they find Evan to deliver the letter, they notice Connor’s oversized name on Evan’s cast and assume the boys had been close.
Evan is too overwhelmed and embarrassed to deny it, and the next thing you know he has been practically adopted by Connor’s grieving parents and, perhaps for the first time in his life, become socially acceptable at school. He even begins to date Connor’s little ister, Zoe, on whom he has had a long term crush.
One thing leads to another, and as Evan continues to embellish the story of his imaginary friendship with Connor, it strikes a chord with his classmates. Soon he and another student have created an online site about Connor and entire support community for troubled teenagers emerges, honoring Connor and his friendship with Evan.
For Evan, it is the best thing that has ever happened to him. He comes out of his shell. He becomes popular. He feels seen and loved.
It’s a mess.
“Dear Evan Hansen” began winning awards as soon as it premiered at the Arena Stage in Washington, about eight years ago, and it didn’t take long for it to hit Broadway to sweep the Tonys.
It is remarkably effective. It hits on the always popular theme of teenage angst, but also takes on internet culture, personal identity, family dysfunction, crime and redemption, and even more. It is a cornucopia of emotional complexity. With music.
The wondrous thing about “Dear Evan Hansen” is that it successfully juggles so many themes, thanks in part to a wonderfully versatile staging which seems to actually be inside the world wide web, and characters that include teenage followers of the Connor website. This is not surprising today, but in 2015, it was radical and its effectiveness is undiminished.
Add to all that a gorgeous score, outstanding performances, and a heart of gold and “Dear Evan Hansen” is dear, indeed.
“Dear Evan Hansen” had a long and successful run on Broadway that, were it not for COVID, would likely have continued to this day. This is the second National Tour for “Dear Evan Hansen” and it is of Broadway quality in every detail.
When it comes to musicals about teenage angst, “Dear Evan Hansen” is a loooooooong way from “Bye Bye Birdie,” but it works!
“Dear Evan Hansen” continues at the Orpheum Theatre through February 19, 2023. For further information, click here.
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“Dear Evan Hansen,” presented by BroadwaySF. Book by Steven Levenson. Music & Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. Director: Michael Greif. Choregrapher: Alex Lacamoire. Scenic Design: David Korins. Projection Design: Peter Nigrini. Costume Dsign: Japhy Weideman. Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg. Hair Design: David Brian Brown. Music Director: Garret Healey.
Zoe Murphy: Alaina Anderson. Larry Murphy: John Hemphill. Alana Beck: Micaela Lamas. Jared Kleinman: Pablo David Laucerica. Evan Hansen: Anthony Norman. Connor Murphy: August Emerson. Heidi Hansen: Coleen Sexton. Cynthia Murphy: Lili Thomas. Virtual Community Voices: Becca Ayers, Mary Bacon, Gerard Canonico, Jenn Colella, Adam Halpin, Mykal Kilgore, Stephen Kunken, Tamika Lawrence, CArrie Manolakos, Ken Marks, Asa Somers, Jason Tam, Brenda Wehle, Natalie Weiss, Tim Young, Remy Zaken.