Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Complexities Of The Hansen Boy, As In ‘Dear Evan’

Amid the angst, anticipation and anxieties felt by an awaiting audience in the lobby of the Civic Theatre downtown at the performance I attended of the long awaited national touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen”, now playing through Jan. 12th; there is a young man on stage, seventeen year old Evan Hansen (Stephen Anthony Christopher) with the very same complex issues noted above that frame his isolated life.

Having raised three teens in the late seventies, and watched my two twenty something grandson’s plow through their teens and my eleven year old going on thirty, issues of self identity, self worth and self doubt were high on the list of ‘self as in me, myself and I’s. The youngest of the three can put his grandmother to shame with his computer savvy. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad but he is definitely connected.

Seeing the arc of Evan’s turmoil’s, I’ve come to the conclusion that but for the circumstances and at one time or another all teens experience the same up’s and down’s but in varying degrees of gravity ranging from most popular in class with lot’s of friends to shyness to lonesomeness, to being misunderstood, to aloneness and isolation and invisibility to ultimately ending the pain.
Stephen Christopher Anthony with Samantha Williams in background
Lord knows the 2917 Tony Award Winning musical  “Dear Evan Hansen” has the chops to attract the attention it rightfully deserves. Considering the buzz and the long wait (it opened on Broadway in 2016) from Broadway to tour everyone in my circle was on high alert as to its landing in San Diego.  

Some how or other and in spite of the top notch cast of this tour, the excellent voices and acting (although the troubled sound system as always in the Civic troubled me throughout), yours truly couldn’t muster the tears those around me shed.

“Dear Evan Hansen” was nominated for nine awards and won six including Best Musical, Best Score with Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul with book by Steven Levenson. That and the fact that UCSD grad Michael Grief directs is an extra bonus for those of us living here long enough to remember when he was artistic director at the La Jolla Playhouse.   

What’s different from all the other feelings of isolation and invisibility seen on other stages in the past is the overwhelming dependency on computers, pads and other devices as a way for youngsters to communicate without benefit of face-to face contact.
Claire Rankin and Jessica Sherman
We interact on Facebook or Snapchat. We create our own invisible world by hiding behind pictures of animals, plants and other earthly beings or not, and then wonder why we or they lack social skills.
 (E.H: “Would anyone even notice if I disappeared tomorrow?”)

While in therapy to address his feelings of isolation, Evan was urged to write letters of encouragement to himself. He addresses with the heading “Dear Evan Hansen” and signs off with Sincerely, Me."
Noah Kieserman and Stephen Christopher Anthony
Somehow another letter that suggests he had all but given up on himself, is left in the printer at the school’s computer lab. As fate would have it, it winds up in the hands of bully, high on drugs and suicidal Connor Murphy (an excellent and convincing Noah Kieserman) a classmate, but indeed no friend.  Connor was annoyed that Evan mentioned that he had a crush on his sister, Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle). 

The next day, high on drugs and at a school run-in we see Connor bullying Evan but when Evan asks him to sign his newly acquired (from a fall from a tree) broken arm cast he does so. He's the only one at school that does, by scrawling his name and taking up the entire side of it.
Noah Kieserman, Claire Rankin, John Hemphill and Stephanie La Rochelle
As circumstances would have it, Connor died by his own hands shortly thereafter. The letter in question, found on Connor became the catalyst for Evan to wind up as his own amateur therapist for the Murphy family by pumping out a series of letters supposedly written by Connor to him. He convinces the Murphy’s that Connor was his best friend and had written to him over a period of time.

This in turn caused a bigger rift as his relationship with his financially struggling single parent mother Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman) sinks to a new low. His visits to the Murphy’s become a regular occurrence and she, his own mom, is almost as invisible to him as he was to his classmates.

Along with coming into his own with the Murphy’s, Larry a big time lawyer and his society wife Cynthia (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin, both convincing as parents wanting to avoid the reality that their son did not live up to their expectations), he convinces the family he has more letters from Connor reassuring them of his friendship with their late son. Along the way he manages an awkward romance with Zoe.  

When word gets out to his small (read two) circle of friends Jared Kleinman and Alma Beck (Alessandro Costantini and Samantha Williams, both real and somewhat lighthearted props to this otherwise media centric story) he convinces them to go along with his lie of Connor and his friendship. Evan insists that the three start a project by raising funds to plant an orchard in Connor’s honor: ‘The Connor Project', to keep Connor’s memory alive.

It isn't until last final numbers:  ”So Big/So Small”/ “You Will Be Found”/ “Words Fail”, when we finally discover the disconnect between Evan and his mother (and that in itself is another story waiting to be told) kicks in. Ms. Sherman’s aching “So Big/So Small”) is excellent when she finally has a chance to use her musical talents as she soars toward the end of the show.

Evan’s Last letter and after all is said and done, “For Forever”, gives a ray hope: “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a good day. And here’s why: because today, today at least you’re you- and that’s enough.”

Stephen Christopher Anthony’s Evan is about on target as he can be, sweet, nerdy, complex, and fidgety almost to the point of distraction. He is a sympathetic character to the point of my motherly instincts wanting to just hold his hands and say nothing. In Yiddish it’s called Rachmonis or mercy, compassion or pity and Anthony’s Evan is that all rolled into one.   

The score is reflective of the goings and comings of the character’s thoughts and wishes and feelings. “For Forever”, Sincerely, Me”, You Will Be Found”, “Words Fail”, "So Big/ So Small" are but some of the most  poignent for this reviewer.

Above the stage and off in the background David Korin’s computerized sets with Peter Nigrini’s projections of faces and images scroll past the elevated band headed by Musical director/Conductor/Keyboard: Garret Healey. At times I found it distracting other times it seemed invisible. Over all the music gets its due and the cast renders it beautifully.

Some might find the subject matter of teen suicide  (Based on an article in The Wall Street Journal Jan. 3, 2020: “Youth suicide rates increased 56% in a decade, CDC says”) a bit disturbing or even that the entire story of Evan Hansen is based on a falsehood, (sorry for the spoiler) or that the dot’s it connects are too far and wide to comfortably convince. That it will all be resolved to satisfy, depends on the emotional meter of your personal Richter scale.  
Cast of "Dear Evan Hansen" 
As the Internet grows and social media grows with it, it behooves parents to know what’s going on with their offspring. If youngsters can find ways to hide ‘stuff’ from their parents, parents must keep the lines of communications open especially if their youngsters change behaviors drastically. It’s vital toeveryone's well being.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Jan. 12th
Organization: Broadway/SD
Phone: 619-470-1100
Production Type: Musical Drama
Where: Downtown San Diego, 1100Third Ave.
Ticket Prices: Start at about $45.oo
Photo: Matthew Murphy


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