Dear Evan Hansen
Steven Levenson (Book); Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (Music & Lyrics)
Broadway San Jose
After yet another frustrating breakfast with sons who refuse to engage, two mothers of high school seniors each sing in desperation, “Does anybody have a map? Anybody maybe happened to know how the hell to do this?” Heidi’s son, Evan, is reclusive and stumbles when mumbling even a few words to anyone (often only able to repeat over and again “I’m sorry”), a boy who cannot even convince his cousin to sign his newly plastered, broken arm. Cynthia’s son, Connor, begins his day high on weed, insults bitterly his younger sister, and bullies the likes of Evan at school (whom he shoves this very day to the ground, just because). As each mother from her kitchen sings with increasing tones of intensity, “The scary truth is, I’m flying blind,” neither has any idea that soon their sons will be forever connected through a series of letters that were never written between sons whose friendship never existed but whose supposed relationship becomes solace and a source of hope for thousands of people neither mother has ever met.
The fact it is one boy’s suicide and another boy’s lies that bring eventual healing to one family; a closer, more supportive sense of community to their high school, and wide-spread inspiration globally through exploding social media may seem a weird choice as a premise for a musical – especially one that won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, after its Broadway premiere in late 2016. But the musical’s compelling, original book by Steven Levenson, its lyrics that elicit both laughter and tears, and its score that can transform within one song the mood from rock beat to soulful reflection (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, music and lyrics), are all reasons Dear Evan Hansen took New York and beyond by storm as a must-see production. Now on tour at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts under the sensitive yet hard-hitting direction of Liam Robinson, Dear Evan Hansen has opened in a production that often finds the packed audience one moment tapping their toes and smiling at the humor and in the next all sitting in stunned silence as the tension on stage leaves them frozen in their seats.
The letter stolen by Connor from the school’s printer is one that Evan has written to himself through the advice of his psychologist as part of his ongoing therapy treatment for some unnamed condition. “Dear Evan Hansen,” the letter begins, “Today is going to be an amazing day.” But as the reality of his loneliness and lack of friends sets in, the letter to himself concludes that actually neither tha day, the next week, nor the coming year will be amazing, and worse, “Would anyone notice if I just disappeared tomorrow?”
When that snitched letter is found in Connor’s possession after he commits suicide, Connor’s mother assumes her often hateful, always angry son actually had one good, even best friend. When Evan reluctantly agrees to come for a family dinner, Cynthia (Coleen Sexton) keeps asking questions about the son she does not recognize in the letter left behind, with Evan avoiding as long as he can any definite answers. But when Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle) – a girl Evan very much likes in secret – bursts out with “Connor was not a good person,” Evan suddenly disputes without his usual hesitation, “Connor was a really good guy” to Cynthia’s relieved delight.
Bit by bit, Evan begins to describe to the shocked family of three a friendship that never was and a perfect day in an old, abandoned apple orchard that never happened. Singing first in a voice faint and tentative with some hesitated pauses as ideas pop slowly into his head, Evan begins to pick up steam and confidence as the details spill out about two pals who “quote songs by our favorite bands, tell jokes no one understands,” who feel “like we could go forever this way, two friends on a perfect day” (“For Forever). A boy who sat down at the dinner table hardly able to look anyone in the eye or say more than just a couple of words is now fully animated, jumping all around the room and singing joyfully of a friendship that makes it feel for both like “life will be all right forever this way.”
Stephen Christopher Anthony is nothing short of staggeringly impressive in his role as Evan. He brings to Evan so many subtle nuances, like answering another’s inquiry with a vague answer (“Oh, maybe so,” “Oh, could be”) that is softly said and fades into a quiet uplift of his voice and a slight smirk on his face that says nothing to the listener but tells us much about this shy kid with so much going on inside his brain. Before the evening with Connor’s parents, we have heard him sing in a gripping, heart-breaking song that describes so vividly his loneliness, “When you’re in a forest and there’s no one around, do you ever crash or even make a sound? … Will I ever make a sound?” (“Waving Through a Window”). No wonder when suddenly he finds a way to have a friend that can open up doors to relationships he never thought were possible for himself does Evan jump at the chance to become the son of Cynthia and Larry Morrow they never had.
Once the myth begins, Evan needs help to perpetuate it beyond one letter. He turns to a cousin, Jared, who usually banters Evan with snarky insults and insists they are only “family friends.” But when asked to help write other emails that will give the Morrows more information about the son they now think was maybe nicer than he appeared, Jared (Justin Diaz-Granados, the evening’s extremely capable understudy replacement of the usual Alessandro Costantini) brings just the right amount of teenage bravado and bawdiness as he tries devilishly to sneak in references of Connor’s rubbing his nipples and moaning with delight when he thinks about Evan. While those lines are quickly exorcised, the two boys sing with great fun and fury as they create a series of “Dear Evans” and “Dear Connors” that tell of a friendship that “goes beyond your average kind of bond” (“Sincerely Me”). When they are joined by an imaginary Connor (Nikhil Saboo) who now gives a raised and enthusiastic voice of approval to his supposed letters to Evan, the scene is one of three pals chest-bumping, high-fiving, and relishing in relationships that never were.
As news spreads in the school that the two nobodies of the campus were actually bosom buddies, kids start re-evaluating both boys in a much more favorable light to become somebodies worth caring about. That is especially true for Alana Beck who claims in a most sincere manner to anyone who will listen that she and Connor were “best acquaintances.” Ciara Alyse Harris is wonderful in the role of Alana, who herself has been rather lonely and overlooked as a Black student in a mostly white school, but who now sees an opportunity to create The Connor Project and raise $50,000 online to restore the soon-to-be-famous apple orchard. (And besides, how good is that going to look on her college applications?) When she convinces Evan to let her publish the emails online, suddenly the Evan-Connor story is known worldwide with hundreds of messages and dozens of anonymous voices forming a global community of people inspired to reach out to others, share their own stories, and ensure other Connors do not follow his same tragic path.
Evan convinces himself that the ever-mounting falsehoods are justified through conversations he has inside his own mind (but visible to us) with Connor himself. The two sing in a resounding duet that “no one deserves to be forgotten” (“Disappear”) as justification to continue the ruse, soon to be joined by Cynthia, Alana, and Jared all repeating in Evan’s mind with intertwining harmonies, “no one deserves to disappear” – including of course, Evan himself.
The first act ends with what is probably the most well-known song of the musical, the uplifting, emotion-packed “You Will Be Found.” From each character’s perspective, the entire cast sings a song of renewed optimism for anyone feeling alone,
“So let the sun come streaming in,
Cuz you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again,
Lift your head off the ground and look around,
You will be found.”
With hundreds of pictures, typed IM’s, and recorded FaceTimes streaming down giant sheer hangings and on the numerous screens that are all part of Rachel Hauck’s effective and striking scenic design, the cast sings repeatedly in full volume and harmony, “You will be found.” While the song swells our hearts with the genuine belief that all has been justified by the massive good coming from a boy’s few falsehoods, the song’s title is also a warning of what will happen to Evan in the second half when lies will give way to truth. Evan will finally have to face and come to grips with who he is really is; but in Dear Evan Hansen, truth brings eventually the hope of sun and a blue sky and even the promise of having a good day that perhaps this time can be sustained until next week and then all year.
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddys’ Best Bet production
Dear Evan Hansen continues through June 19, 2022 in touring performance as part of Broadway San Jose’s season at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Boulevard, San Jose. Tickets are available online at https://broadwaysanjose.com/ or by calling the box office at 408-692-4111, Tuesday – Saturday, 12 – 5 p.m.