It’s hard to imagine a musical can bring laughter when themes include mental health issues, social anxiety, isolation, lies, drug addiction, suicide and grieving, but Dear Evan Hansen, currently making a six-day stop at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre as part of a national tour, manages to pull it off. To be clear, the show is not entirely stocked with comedy; in fact, there are some heart-pounding dramatic moments within. But the balance makes for great entertainment as Steven Levenson’s book takes the audience on an emotional ride not often seen in musicals.
It is no surprise that Dear Evan Hansen captured six Tony Awards in 2017 and numerous other accolades, and the touring production does justice to the critically acclaimed Broadway production that starred Ben Platt. The performances by the cast at the Hippodrome under the direction of Michael Greif are superb aided by a wonderful eight-piece orchestra directed by Garret Healey seated on the upper level of the stage and an awesome set.
Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is a timid and bullied 17-year-old high school senior suffering from social anxiety and a lack of self-esteem. He has a cast over a broken arm from falling from a tree, but how that happened is murky. His father had left the family when Evan was 7 leaving his mother Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman) to make ends meet. However, she works during the day and attends paralegal school at night leaving Evan to himself much of the time. Heidi procures a therapist for Evan who assigns him the task of writing a letter to himself each day saying why this will be a good day in an effort to be positive.
Another outcast at school is Connor Murphy (Nikhil Saboo), drug addicted and hostile, who bullies Evan and knocks him down in the hallway. Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia Murphy (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin) are wealthy and have a daughter Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle) who happens to be Evan’s crush.
Evan pens this letter:
Dear Evan Hansen:
It turns out, this wasn’t an amazing day after all. This isn’t going to be an amazing week or an amazing year. Because… why would it be?
Oh, I know. Because there’s Zoe. And all my hope is pinned on Zoe. Who I don’t even know and doesn’t know me. But maybe if I did. Maybe if I could just talk to her, then maybe… maybe nothing would be different at all.
I wish that everything was different. I wish I was part of… something. I wish that anything I said… mattered, to anyone. I mean, face it: Would anyone notice if I just disappeared tomorrow?
Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend,
So central is this letter to the plot that fragments of it is projected on a screen on the stage virtually throughout the show.
After Connor signs Evan’s cast, he grabs the letter from the printer in the school’s computer lab despite Evan’s pleading and runs off with it in anger as he notices the reference to his sister. He puts it in his pocket.
A couple of days later, Connor commits suicide and this letter was found in the pocket. His distraught parents conclude that this letter was Connor’s suicide note and was surprised he had a friend, Evan Hansen, to whom he can share his deepest thoughts.
When Evan notices how the Murphys' grief was mitigated by the notion that Connor actually had a friend and seeing that this may be an entrée into establishing a relationship with Zoe, Evan somewhat reluctantly plays along. The revelation that Evan and Connor were good friends (especially when neither had any friends at all) came as a stunning surprise to Zoe, Heidi and fellow students.
A classmate, Alanna Beck (Ciara Alyse Harris), seeks to enhance her extracurricular activities by trying to promote this newly revealed friendship on social media as a way to honor Connor following his death. Jared Kleinman (Alessandro Costantini), a “family friend” of Evan helps perpetuate the ruse by creating and backdating emails between Connor and Evan and showing the Murphy’s.
What then transpires is how both families are impacted by the charade. This is especially true with Evan who attempts to come to terms with the dishonesty and weighing it against the fact Connor’s parents see their son in a new light and that Evan becomes unexpectedly popular.
With music and lyrics by Tony Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the score is solid. They had teamed up for A Christmas Story among others as well as cinema hits The Greatest Showman and La La Land. Songs like “For Forever,” the show stopper “You Will Be Found” and “So Big/So Small” are exceptional. “Sincerely, Me” is the singular comical song, and it is hilarious.
In a tour de force, Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan is simply magnificent. (The role will be played by Sam Primack on the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)
It’s a major challenge to replicate the work done by Ben Platt in the Broadway production but Mr. Anthony comes pretty close. His tenor voice is stunningly powerful, holds the notes proficiently and is able to reach the higher registers using falsetto. Mr. Anthony excels in all his numbers with “For Forever,” “If I Could Tell Her,” ‘You Will Be Found,” and “Words Fail” particularly outstanding.
"In a tour de force, Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan is simply magnificent."
Yet, it is Mr. Anthony’s superb acting skills that form the core of the show’s success. In portraying the timid and self-doubting teenager, he convincingly plays the character with his fluttering speech, mannerisms, keeping his arms close to his body denoting his insecurity, and nervous giggles with nuance.
Onstage throughout most of the production, Mr. Anthony maintains these details with great success. His exchanges with Zoe, his mother and Connor’s parents are notable in how he is able to change the tone so fluidly depending on who he is interacting with. In short, he puts on an acting and vocal clinic.
As Heidi, Evan’s mother, Jessica E. Sherman, also turns in a stellar performance. She conveys the hardworking but oft absent mother to a tee. Also, surprised to learn of Evan’s friendship with Connor, her suspicions effectively come to the surface through her acting skills.
But it is her tender, tears-inducing solo “So Big/So Small” that is arguably one of the most heart-wrenching songs in musical theatre. In that song, which is performed near the end, Heidi reassures Evan that she will always be there for him despite his father’s abandonment. This is one of the show’s highlights.
As the ambitious, dramatic Alana, Ciara Alyse Harris does a splendid job in portraying Evan’s classmate and catalyst for Evan’s tribute to Connor. She does not have a solo number but she sings well in the group number “Disappear.”The one comical role in the show belongs to Jared Kleinman played so well by Alessandro Costantini. Sex-obsessed and funny throughout, Jared is a co-conspirator in the ruse concerning Evan’s and Connor’s manufactured relationship. He sings well too, as he performs in the comical group number “Sincerely, Me.”
Stephanie La Rochelle does a fine as Zoe, Connor’s sister and Evan’s crush. Soft spoken, perhaps too much so, Zoe is the most suspicious of the Evan-Connor relationship. She hated her brother but became closer to Evan when she became convinced they were actually friends. Ms. La Rochelle sings well in the duet with Mr. Anthony in “If I Could Tell Her” and “Only Us.”
Claire Rankin is very effective portraying Cynthia Murphy, Connor’s and Zoe’s mother. Her family, while affluent, was never close, and Cynthia tries to keep them together. She was particularly moved by the emerging story that Connor and Evan were friends.
Both she and her husband Larry, played well by John Hemphill, begin to see Evan as a son following the revelations of the boys’ friendship even offering Evan college fund money that had been set aside for Connor. Mr. Hemphill performs a tender duet with Mr. Anthony “To Break in a Glove.”
Then there is Connor himself played by Nikhil Saboo. He makes brief appearances at the outset where he bullies Evan. Then in death, he appears in Evan’s conscience to guide and reassure him. Mr. Saboo appears in several numbers including a duet with Mr. Costantini in “Sincerely, Me.”
A creative and functional set designed by David Korins and projections designed by Peter Nigrini enhance the production. When a scene takes place in Evan’s room, the rear screen is filled with moving projected images of computer screens depicting the active world of cyberspace. Scenes transform seamlessly and smoothly from a simple kitchen table where Evan and Heidi have intimate talks to a school corridor to the Murphy house with windows projected on the screen. Japhy Weideman’s excellent lighting design adds to the strong visuals.
You can come to see Dear Evan Hansen for the music. You can come for the drama. You can come for the magnificent performance by Stephen Christopher Anthony as well as the other cast members. You can come for the dynamic scenery. In any case, do come but hurry as tickets are limited. This is theatre at its best.
Running Time. Two hours and 45 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory. The show contains profanity and adult situations and is not recommended for young children.
Dear Evan Hansen plays through March 20 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit here.
Photos: Patrick Murphy