Regional Reviews: San Diego
Antisocial and full of anxiety, Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony and, on Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances, Sam Primack) struggles to make new friends at his high school. One day he is called into the principal's office to meet the parents, Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia Murphy (Claire Rankin), of an angry loner named Connor (Noah Kieserman). Connor's parents inform Evan that their son committed suicide and that he wrote a suicide note that began "Dear Evan Hansen," giving the impression that Connor and Evan were best friends. The parents don't realize that Connor actually stole a letter that Evan wrote to himself, and this situation is a misunderstanding. With the encouragement of his selfish "family friend" Jared Kleinman (Alessandro Costantini), Evan fibs and pretends that he and Connor were very close. His fabrication leads to unexpected consequences.
Levenson's book is crucial to the appeal of the tale, developing characters who are all worth caring about, even with their flaws. There are hilarious moments, as well as uncomfortable and heavy sequences. Some have criticized Levenson's writing for creating sympathy for a liar. I don't believe this is an issue, because Evan is written as a three-dimensional human being with both positive and negative qualities. It helps that Levenson doesn't glorify Evan's lying, and there are ramifications for his deceit.
The score, with music by Pasek and lyrics by Pasek and Paul, delves into the sadness and inner-pain Evan feels with songs such as "Waving Through a Window" and "Words Fail." Most of Pasek's melodies are emotional, an exception being a very funny song, "Sincerely, Me," sung by Evan, Jared, and an imaginary version of Connor. As Evan and Jared compose fake emails between Evan and Connor, the three of them hilariously dance in a giddy style (Danny Mefford is the choreographer). Each of the songs is played with impactful musicianship in this touring production by an orchestra led by music director/conductor/keyboardist Garret Healey. The music from the band blends in flawlessly with the vocals of the performers.
Anthony touchingly depicts Evan's insecurities and inner-guilt. He croons his songs with an expressive and wide vocal range that adds to the power of his performance. Sherman is just as moving as Evan's supportive-to-a-fault mother Heidi. Her handling of "So Big/So Small" is tear inducing, because of her beautiful singing and acting. Kieserman, Hemphill, Rankin and Stephanie La Rochelle (as Connor's sister Zoe) richly portray a family that is detached and distant. And Costantini and Samantha Williams are well cast as Evan's high school peers. Each of the performers is guided by Greif's typically assured and modern direction.
Similar to some of his earlier work, Greif stages Dear Evan Hansen with an emphasis on realism. Even when people sing, audiences rarely have to suspend their disbelief, because of how he presents both dialogue scenes and songs. Helping Greif with visuals are Peter Nigrini's projections and Japhy Weideman's lighting, which showcase our era where cellphones and the internet seem necessary to thrive in both school and the real world. Sound effects and the use of virtual community voices through Nevin Steinberg's sound design add to the digital atmosphere. Dear Evan Hansen might be rooted in the present day, but there is more than enough universal appeal to keep the captivating plot relevant for years to come.
Dear Evan Hansen runs through January 12, 2020, at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Avenue, San Diego CA. Tickets start at $45.00. For tickets or more information in San Diego, visit broadwaysd.com or call 619-564-3000. For more information on the tour, visit dearevanhansen.com/tour/.