The U.S. tour of the multiple Tony Award winning musical Dear Evan Hansen
— at the Majestic Theatre through Sunday — brings intimate realism to pop-anthem musical theatre and complex compassion to the fraught social relationships among 21st century high school students and their parents. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score is quietly moving, while Steven Levenson’s book sketches teenagers’ attempts to connect across voids of depression and isolation with grace and humor. Michael Greif’s deft, fluid direction, David Korins’ wonderful set, and especially Peter Nigrini’s projection design frame the isolated characters within a teenage social media landscape in a decidedly Dark Mode.
Though the laptops and smartphones that lie at the center of characters’ lives are small, their content here is projected onto large black panels that slide in vertiginous juxtaposition to the moving newsfeeds. Screen content dwarfs the bodies and furniture in scenes at school and the rooms of private homes, surrounding characters with the Twitter and Facebook feeds that dominate their attempts to represent themselves and connect socially.
The song “Dear Evan Hansen” begins the note the title character addresses to himself at the urging of his mother and therapist. This act of self-affirmation, however, goes wrong in two steps. First, Evan Hansen does not think today will be a great day, and he says why in the note that he prints at school. Then, more disastrously, the note ends up misinterpreted when found on the body of Connor Murphy, a devastatingly troubled teen who kills himself in the first few minutes of the musical. Connor’s parents interpret the note as written to Evan from Connor, and it doesn’t help that Connor prominently signed the cast on Evan’s arm.
Before he can disabuse them about this apparent evidence of a secret friendship, Evan — who, like Connor, has long felt invisible and friendless — sees how desperately Mrs. and Mr. Murphy want to believe there was a loving and playful side to their son that the family had never seen. The idea that Connor was anyone’s friend particularly baffles his sister Zoe, who remembers only his intimidation and yelling. In a further complication: Evan has long been in love with Zoe from afar, and said as much in “Connor’s” letter. She struggles to reconcile those words about her with the cruel brother she knew. It seems implausible these two would be secret friends — both are isolated and depressed, but Connor is rebellious, with shaggy hair and a history of drug abuse, while Evan is buttoned up, hesitant and apologetic — but Evan begins to construct an elaborate relationship that never existed.
Somehow, everyone buys it.
Evan’s failure to tell the Murphy family the truth quickly transforms from misguided altruism, to self-serving opportunism, to a weirder deconstruction of identity and social relationships. Evan (meta)theatrically creates a deep friendship that the audience gets to see played out onstage. Connor haunts not by his spectral absence but his often-amusing performance of the lines Evan and his frenemy write as backdated emails in a secret account, retroactively constructing in language a Connor who would be (secret) friends with a sensitive, self-effacing nerd. These scenes between Evan and Connor are filled with joy, hope and the fantasy of friendship played out in ways that social media and high school ordinarily repress.
In a sense, this total fabrication becomes the most real part of the whole fabric of Evan’s identity and the heart of the piece. Here — and only here — Evan realizes his longing to interact honestly and in person. Otherwise he sits in his room and interacts with his computer screen. He’s pathologically shy; his divorced mother works all the time; his father abandoned them both for a new life and family; he has no social status at school. Evan materializes, against the evidence available to him, his notion that no matter who you are, how isolated you feel, “you will be found.” With no one there to help him when he fell from a tree and broke his arm, Evan creates a Connor who was present. Through his fictional characterization of Connor, he projects and works out his own sense of isolation, though this figure also “convinces” Evan to continue the lie. And more, he constructs a Connor that he was there for, retroactively producing an intervention in his suicidal depression that his parents and fellow students failed to perform.
Ultimately, as Evan profits by pretending to have been Connor’s friend — dating Zoe, being co-president of a fundraising effort devoted to memorializing him, going viral for a heartfelt speech caught on camera and posted on Facebook — his very notion of what a self is becomes unstable, as does his sense of what it means to be there for others and the veracity of self-representations as curated on social media. The apparent intimacy and reality of the newsfeed posts and tweets warp, visibly rendered in the projections with disturbing lines that distort photos and obscure text.
While Evan’s sequence of lies predictably fails to sustain him forever, and the consequences of his words inevitably compromise his integrity and hurt the Murphy family, Dear Evan Hansen
is far from a pat condemnation of generation Z’s tendency to curate themselves online or stretch the truth in order to gain social status. The musical handles nearly all its characters lovingly, treating their ethical dilemmas and yearning for connection seriously. Sniffles were audible during Tuesday night's performance as Evan’s single mother sang to him about high school struggles and being enough just the way you are. The outstanding cast — particularly Steven Christopher Anthony in the title role and Stephanie La Rochelle as Zoe — carry the restrained scenes with specificity, precision and sincerity.
Most importantly, despite the dangers of online self-curation and particularly fictionalized accounts of others’ trauma, Levenson’s book takes care to establish fiction and performance — both onstage and in our largely imagined social lives — as fundamental to establishing relationships and becoming a self.
$45-$686, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday (through December 22), Majestic Theatre, 224 E. Houston St., (210) 226-3333, majesticempire.com.
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