DEAR EVAN HANSEN Makes Strong St. Louis Debut At Fox Theatre

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Steven Christopher Anthony as Evan Hansen, with John Hemphill, Claire Rankin and Stephanie La Rochelle as the Murphys in the 2019 National Tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN, photo credit: the DEAR EVAN HANSEN Tour

Dear Even Hansen made its St. Louis debut at the Fabulous Fox theatre as part of their first North American Tour, which runs October 22 to November 3, 2019. It’s a favorite of the Broadway set and a critical darling, winning six Tony Awards in 2017 including Best Musical. It’s even made waves in the music industry, garnering a 2018 Grammy for Best Musical Theatre album, and a #1 song on Billboard’s Dance Chart with the remix of “Waving Through a Window,” the first musical theatre song to achieve the feat and only the second song from a cast act as opposed to a dedicated musical group (the first being “Stomp”” by Quincy Jones and The Cast of Stomp). Are you excited yet? Are you ready for a rip-roaring good time?

The production is a good time, if you go in knowing what to expect. Personally, your favorite critic generally prefers to go into new shows without knowing anything about it. There’s nothing like the joy of discovery. That said, it’s usually a good idea to follow your own intuition. With that in mind I did a tiny bit of research and found out that Dear Evan Hansen is a show about the modern American family. Many props to you if you and your family have everything together but let’s be honest, most families face at least a couple of dramas and/or tragedies that they either have been or will be dealing with for a very long time. More than ever, communication is vitally important and increasingly challenging despite having more ways than ever to do exactly that. Humans have always been social creatures, and the family has always been the primary social circle. For a multitude of reasons, the average American family has become a building of individuals, virtual strangers despite their genetics, isolated from each other by the Internet, virtual worlds and societal pressure magnified by the 24/7/365 bombardment of information. Just bring up your favorite search engine and brose some headlines and there’s almost assuredly a click-bait article or ten with headlines such as “25 Things You Should Never Ask Your Child” or “!7 Ways That You’ve Failed As A Parent.” Even the “positive” sounding articles, like “9 Sites To Watch When Your child Won’t Talk To You” are still primed, intentionally or not, to ratchet up anxiety in both the parent and the child. Anxiety leads to fear or resentment and anger, neither side really understands the other and now both are too anxious to try. And that’s what this is all about, the isolation of today’s teen…and the rest of the family too. Now you know, and hopefully you’re not scared off and eager to see for yourself how it all turns out.

The plot isn’t a brain burner but it’s complex enough to be more rewarding if you pay attention (in case the people seated in the Orchestra Right area of the Fox around row K happen to read this: turn your damn phones off and watch the show!). Stephen Christopher Anthony plays Evan Hansen, a socially awkward high school senior whose divorced mother Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman), is trying to fit college classes into her work schedule which leaves little quality time to spend with her son. They’re getting by but it’s hard (sound familiar?). Evan doesn’t have many, if any, true friends, the closest being Jared Kleinman (Alessandro Costantini) who is generally obnoxious. Jared also knows class busy-body Alana Beck (Ciara Alyse Harris). They barely acknowledge either. Evan has a crush on Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle) but her brother Connor (Noah Kieserman), finds a self-motivational letter written by Evan to himself as therapy that was not particularly motivational—it read more like a suicide note. It also mentioned Zoe, which nearly starts a fight between the boys until Zoe herself shows up and settles things down. Distraught over his letter being in someone else’s hands, Evan gets called to the principal’s office. There, he meets Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia Murphy (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin, respectively) who inform him that Connor had committed suicide and they believe this not they found on him was for Evan…the one he had wrote to himself that day. Evan faces a difficult moral choice: tell the truth about the letter and be as isolated as ever, or spare his crush’s parents broken hearts and claim that’s they’ve been friends for quite some time, mostly chatting online through some obscure website. As you no doubt realize, Evan choosing the truth would bring the whole show to an end within the first thirty minutes. The repercussions of his decision affect everyone in the cast. As endings go in musical theatre history, it’s far from the most neat and tidy sort. Characters are still trying to understand it all, their various perspectives leading to different results. The Fox audience didn’t seem to mind and rewarded the cat with a rousing ovation.

Stephen Christopher Anthony was very good as Evan Hansen, and seemed to channel Jim Parsons in some ways. He wasn’t a full-on Sheldon Cooper clone but he has some similar mannerisms. His acting was excellent, and I think the sound mix in the first act had more to do with any issues I was having with his singing early on than he did. I found it rather hard at times to understand what he was singing, but he sounded fine after intermission. Costantini also reminded me of another obnoxious TV charcter, Seinfeld’s George Costanza, who was brilliantly brought to life by under-appreciated actor Jason Alexander. Harris brings a ton of energy to the role of Alana, talking over Hansen repeatedly while they pitch their idea of turning a disused apple orchard into a memorial park in Connor’s memory. The show probably didn’t completely click for me until she explains that she doesn’t get involved in dozen different things at once because she likes to stay busy but rather because she’s afraid of being invisible. The chemistry between La Rochelle, Hemphill, Rankin and Anthony was very strong, and the way Anthony and Sherman worked together gave the show much of its legitimacy. Her isolated mother struggling to be the lone head of her household and his isolated son unable to discuss his issues in a meaningful way with the one person he should truly be able to talk to, and the arguments and tender moments that come of that broken family dynamic, looked, sounded and felt very familiar. Please note that if you attend one of the matinee performances, Sam Primack will be playing Hansen but I’m sure he’ll be just as interesting in the role.

While I enjoyed the cast and came around on the story for the most part once I realized what the theme of the show was really about, I did have a handful of issues with it. The set wasn’t particularly appealing, consisting mostly of a rather abstract riser upon which the band played and doubling as the ceiling for the various locations of each scene. It was functional, but it felt like it largely wasted the upper half of the ample Fox stage beyond the band’s spot to far stage right. There were many times where the set was awash with internet imagery: chat boxes, emails, streaming video, pictures, sometimes focused, sometimes diffused, mostly distracting. I don’t think there are too many people who would be shocked to learn of the many scientific studies that have explored the link between the Information Age and heightened anxiety, depression and disintegrating communication skills. The regular bombardment of this imagery felt a bit heavy handed. There are also some elements of the story itself that just seemed to flimsy and took me out of the spectacle while I pondered the issue. A big one was the title of the show itself, taken from the misinterpreted suicide note. How could intelligent adults and Hansen and Murphy’s classmates alike not wonder why a friend would write a suicide note in such a formal way as “Dear Evan Hansen?” Would someone on the brink of suicide even bother with “Dear” much less the formality of a friend’s last name? I would have to think not. Eventually the Alana character voices a similar sentiment, which again took my attention away from the narrative. I thought, “OK, so if she’s saying that the writer, Steven Levenson, must have realized how odd that is…and yet instead of fixing the letter he makes it a key plot point?” Surely the Murphys read the letter repeatedly while coping with their grief, but they don’t wonder about the formality in this friendship their son had that they never even knew about? It just seems too convenient at times to be believable. There are some other moments where I was shaking my head, not buying into the message. Levenson won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical for Dear Evan Hansen in 2017, and has written other plays, four seasons of the Showtime series Masters of Sex and was the showrunner for a miniseries about Broadway legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon on FX that debuted earlier this year, so he’s certainly a credible writer. That means it’s probably just my psyche projecting my own experiences on top of the show and they simply don’t match up so well. Levinson got his point across but my brain was more cocerned with tiny details that didn't click with me instead of just acceting the larger theme.I had no problem with the music and song lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Perhaps if I see the show again, in a different frame of mind and under different circumstances, I’d feel differently about the script. Musical theatre, like any work of art, won’t appeal to everyone every time. Hopefully the next time I see Dear Evan Hansen I’ll view it through a fresh lens and enjoy the sum of the parts and not just the parts on their own. 

For more information about Dear Evan Hansen and remaining tickets—I suspect there’s probably not many for this widely popular show—please visit www.FabulousFox.com and decide for yourself.

Grade: 
3.5 / 5.0