Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen) and Coleen Sexton (Heidi Hansen) in the 2022-23 North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen, photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
The world can be a lonely place, especially when you’re in high school . . . and especially when you’re Evan Hansen, the title character in Dear Evan Hansen, onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Evan’s story is told through Steven Levenson’s heartfelt script and a powerful, emotionally charged score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, all brought together by Michael Greif’s purposeful direction. And, while this quartet pulls out all the stops in introducing viewers to Evan and his seemingly solitary world, his story is one that will already be familiar for many. No, most people probably haven’t written a letter to themselves and then had it mistaken as the last words of a classmate. But, most people have felt the loneliness and desperate desire to connect that Evan exhibits. And that—the desire for connection and the lengths people will go to in order to find it—is really the driving force behind this Tony award-winning musical.
Viewers are introduced to not just Evan, endearingly portrayed by Anthony Norman, but to all the “major players” in Evan’s life. There’s his overworked-but-loving mother, Heidi (Coleen Sexton); his scheming sort-of friend, Jared (Reese Sebastian Diaz), and his major crush, Zoe (Alaina Anderson). Zoe also happens to be the sister of Connor (Nikhil Saboo), the troubled teen who serves as the catalyst for the story that unfolds. It is Connor who takes Evan’s aforementioned letter before taking his own life. When Connor’s parents find the note, they reach out to Evan for answers. And, while he tries to tell the truth, he gets pulled into their world, into acting as their friend and son, and into a quickly spreading web of lies.
Evan’s motivations, however, are far from devious. His desire for love, belonging, and acceptance simply win out over his desire to tell the truth. And, while that doesn’t excuse his actions, it certainly makes them more understandable. In fact, most viewers will empathize with Evan throughout his journey. It’s not hard to do, especially with Norman’s sweet, bumbling characterization. From the moment Evan is introduced, his awkwardness, his nervousness, and his imperfections—all the things he hates about himself—only serve to make him more human and to draw him into the hearts of viewers. That’s probably because everyone can find themselves in Evan and, really, in the vast majority of these characters. Heidi is just a mom searching for the right words to say, Zoe is just a girl who feels unseen, Connor is a troubled teen acting out of fear, and even Evan’s makeshift friends, Jared and Alana (Micaela Lamas) are just doing the best they can.
As these characters scramble through the unfolding drama, their innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires are brought to life by moving songs. The parental plights of Heidi and Connor’s mother, Cynthia (Lili Thomas), are beautifully expressed in “Anybody Have a Map?” while Evan’s loneliness comes through loud and clear in “Waving through a Window.” And then there’s “Requiem,” a sorrowful song about grief and the many ways in which it affects people, which has even more of an emotional impact thanks to Anderson’s chillingly searching vocalization.
As one powerhouse song moves seamlessly into the next, Greif’s confident direction and staging allow the story to evolve quickly and effortlessly. Set pieces slide into place, and characters appear onstage lightning fast. There are so few breaks in the action that it feels like real life and fully immerses the audience in the story. The backdrop of screens, filled with flashing social media shares and close-up clips, also envelops viewers, cementing them right in Evan’s life.
Furthermore, each person showcased is fully realized and alive. Even Connor, a character that sometimes unfairly gets lots in the shuffle, shines here. Saboo creates many versions of the character, each one designed by Evan’s lies and imaginings, but still demonstrative of the possibilities that could have existed in Connor’s short life. Likewise, Lamas elicits sympathy for her sometimes irksome, overbearing character, and Sexton’s lilting voice and motherly characterization make Heidi more than just the “mom” in the story. Each character comes through as clearly representative of the surprising connections that exist between us all, if we’re only brave enough to look for them.
Dear Evan Hansen is a sad show in many ways. But, it’s also an honest one and a hopeful one. It demonstrates that, while people may make some mistakes along the way, there is room for grace, for forgiveness, and to love yourself and others, imperfections and all. It hits home with younger viewers in particular, but will also resonate with anyone who has ever felt alone, which, if we’re being honest, is all of us.
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