Muddled But Moving ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Emotionally Explores A Complex Dilemma

TW: Mentions of suicide

What is there to say about Dear Evan Hansen? Probably, not a lot that hasn’t already been said somewhere on the internet, considering both the show’s popularity and the intensity of the discourse that has surrounded it. After premiering on Broadway in 2016, the show won six of the nine Tony Awards that it was nominated for, including Best Musical, but has since suffered somewhat of a backlash after a widely critically panned movie version cast somewhat of a different light on its source. 

I first saw the musical on Broadway in 2017, and after my recent visitation of the touring production of the show at the Kravis Center, I think I would have to say that Dear Evan Hansen is neither as great as its initial admirers purported nor as bad as some of its latter-day naysayers might suggest. 

First, to attempt to explain the plot: The title of the play comes from the misinterpreted letter that sets the stage for the anti-hero Evan Hansen’s central dilemma. The socially awkward and anxious teen, who is virtually invisible at his high school and whose single mother is often absent as she struggles to make ends meet, is assigned by his therapist to write letters of affirmation to himself to help him build his self-confidence. 

Another teen outcast, Connor Murphy, whose aggression and snark contrasts with Evan’s introversion, mockingly signs the cast on Evan’s arm and then seizes the letter from himand then goes on to take his own life. Connor’s parents thus misinterpret the letter, which is addressed to Evan Hansen, signed only by “me,” and ends with the writer wondering whether anyone would even notice if he disappeared, to be a suicide note from Connor to Evan, who they then surmise must have been one of his close friends. 

Evan initially tries to correct the misunderstanding, but then starts going along with it, first only in an attempt to avoid causing the grieving family even more pain but then because he is enjoying the attention he is someone who was near the epicenter of a tantalizing tragedy. This culminates in a speech Evan makes about Connor going viral and becoming the inspiration for a memorial “Connor Project,” a development that is spared from coming across as unforgivably deceptive because of the genuine good intentions that Evan seems to have. 

In Evan’s mind, Connor becomes the imaginary friend he wishes he had, a picture that contrasts with that of the real Connor from what little we learn about him through his brief appearance and his family’s recounted memories, someone who doesn’t “deserve to be forgotten” or to “disappear”—because, as Evan slowly seems to realize, maybe nobody deserves to disappear, and maybe even he doesn’t. 

Somewhat less forgivable, however, is the advantage Evan takes of his newfound closeness with the Murphy’s. Cynthia and Larry Murphy’s desire to connect with Evan out of a desperation to feel closer to their lost son contrasts with Evan’s own mother’s preoccupation and his father’s absence from his life, so Evan leans into the wish-fulfillment fantasy, even enlisting the help of his family friend Jared, here snidely played by Alessandro Constantini, to fake an entire email exchange between the two. If that weren’t icky enough, Evan also seizes the moment to act on his long-time crush on Connor’s sister Zoey, which he had previously been too insecure to approach her about. 

For such a grim scenario fraught with such devastating implications, it’s remarkable that Dear Evan Hansen tackles its story so well, though it’s also no surprise that it doesn’t fully grapple with the extent of Evan’s culpability, instead turning him into a relatively passive figure who somehow ends up on the wrong side of what’s honestly a pretty damn deep moral chasm. 

Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan Hansen

Stephen Christopher Anthony was plenty awkwardly endearing in the part, and the character of Evan was plenty relatable in his articulations of the specifics of his social phobias and in the longing to fit in and connect that he beautifully expresses in the ballad Waving Through A Window. However, the trauma that the Murphy family experienced in losing a son/brother and that Evan’s ruse exacerbates evoked far more of my sympathy than did Evan’s relatively ordinary high school social struggles. 

In moments like the Murphy’s haunting trio song Requiem, it is made clear that Evan’s made-up stories about Connor are affecting his grieving loved one’s deeply, and yet Dear Evan Hansen shies away from the emotional fallout that Evan’s monumental lie would logically have had for the Murphys down the line. 

A play that delved into that darkness more thoroughly would probably be a more interesting play than this one, which to some degree only skims the surface of its sad story, devoting much of its lyrical space to sentimental platitudes as opposed to character or plot development. Not to say that Dear Evan Hansen still isn’t a heartfelt, gripping ride, featuring a gorgeous and emotionally rich score that was given its full due by this production’s vocally talented company. 

Acting-wise, Nikhil Saboo definitely stood out for his skilled portrayal Connor Murphy, a character who is in some sense as much of an enigma to us as he is to his family and who is present in the play both as his tortured actual self and as the puppet-like figure Evan imagines of him. Stephanie La Rochelle’s sensitive Zoey and Claire Rankin’s expressive Cynthia also made a memorable impression. 

Also noteworthy was the innovative design element of having the social media sphere visually represented onstage via luminescent digital projections. But the connection between Evan’s feeling that he is stuck “waving through a window” and the fact that we are all trapped behind the windows open on our respective computer screens, trying to project a perfect image and often losing any actual connection with each other in the process, is something that Dear Evan Hansen seems to be trying to get at but doesn’t quite end up saying, because, in the end, it’s hard to say that it really says much of anything beyond some kind of familiar be-yourself credo. 

Still, in as occasionally muddled a manner as the show addresses weighty topics like mental illness and suicide, it should also be commended for taking them on at all, and the solace that many viewers have found in the show is a testament to its considerable emotional power. Like its protagonist, Dear Evan Hansen is both earnest and imperfect, and it may be worth stopping in to weigh in before it leaves West Palm Beach after this Sunday the 19th.

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