In Dear Evan Hansen, a sweet cast album takes a much different turn when the story plays out on stage.
The Tony Award-winning Broadway hit embarks on its final tour; and its limited Seattle run, which opened last night, performs at the Paramount through this weekend only.
I had to go back to the cast album for a reminder of what makes Dear Evan Hansen a widely beloved hit.
On its music and lyrics alone, the show sounds like a standby for YA novel enthusiasts everywhere: a sweet show that’s a welcome invitation to be a little messy, against a backdrop of slightly bumbling, quite inexperienced, and also probably quite gay — methinks “Sincerely, Me” doth protest too much — romance.
It’s cute. It’s catchy. It’s a young love. It sounds like something our hometown composer-lyricist extraordinaire Justin Huertas might have written.
That’s Dear Evan Hansen at its best, and that’s the impression that comes through most clearly on the cast album.
But at its worst, Dear Evan Hansen looks more like an excuse to be messy that never feels well-deserved — a dismissive “boys will be boys,” outcast edition.
Unfortunately, that’s the angle that comes through strongest in the stage version, where the sentiment of the generally lovely music and lyrics (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) too often gets choked out by an unpleasant story. Its bloated book (by Steven Levenson) has the first act stretching on so long — its 90 minutes seeming much longer, as half of it is straight dialogue — it feels more like a parallel play alongside a musical. The uninspiring scenic design (by David Korins), most of which is a muddled sea of GeoCities-vibin’ projections (designed by Peter Nigrini), gives a wavering attention span nowhere to run.
In a nutshell, the story is this: among a variety of misfit teens, chronic school-skipper Connor Murphy goes into a rage and kills himself, but he’s thereafter lionized when fellow student-outcast Evan Hansen claims (falsely) to have been his secret best friend. What starts off as an innocent-enough misunderstanding ends up an elaborate cover-up and, thanks to the Internet, the lies grow legs. The title character thrives on perpetuating the con, as he gets what he really wanted: the girl (who happens to be Connor’s sister), along with a doting de facto new family (in the Murphys), widespread approval from peers, and a newfound confidence accompanying it.
What’s lost? The truth, obviously. The parents of the deceased student have to grieve their son’s death, which does seem to be made easier by Evan’s lies; but they have to grieve all over again when they discover that the side of the boy they had just come to learn about was all an invention. The school and public get fed a feel-good story that turns out to be fake, cheapening the real-life stories of students who’ll never see that level of interest or attention. (One character, fellow student Alana, hints at that, but it’s not a developed thread.)
Evan’s own mom gets taken for a ride with his story; and though he repeatedly casts her as the villain, ultimately she’ll be there for him, as we always knew she would be.
Long-suffering mothers will probably connect with this story more deeply than anyone else. The teary viewing happening right behind me seemed to confirm as much. But those same moms also deserve a better stage portrayal than getting toyed with by an unappreciative, manipulative son.
Still, the worst out of this story might be Connor’s sister, Zoe — for not only does Evan use his ever-more-elaborate story to gain her time and attention, and ultimately affection, but his tale of a much-different Connor suggests the brother she had to endure was a special evil reserved just for her. Championed after death, in life he was, to her, a nightmare: igniting heated family fights, pounding on the doors, threatening to kill her.
And so for Zoe, grief at her only sibling’s suicide was already a mixed bag. Evan’s indulgent stories complicate it even further. In this tale, she deserves much more time and agency, and the orts we’re given make it sound like her take would be a compelling one, with fire and nuance alike.
Instead, we get Connor the lit fuse and Evan the liar in the spotlight.
Boys will be boys.
Especially if we keep encouraging it.
If you’re itching to see Dear Evan Hansen, act now: this is the show’s final tour, and its run at the Paramount is a short one. For the story you can’t fault the cast, many of whom are big-stage veterans. But for the plot’s under-sung heroes, give credit where it’s due: to the earnest portrayals by Alaina Anderson (as Zoe); Micaela Lamas (as Alana), one of the strongest singers on stage, despite getting minimal airtime; and Coleen Sexton (as Heidi Hansen). And the cast’s harmonies on “You Will Be Found,” closing out the first act, are magnificent.
Dear Evan Hansen runs through 3/12 at the Paramount Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms on the main floor. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance on 3/12 (matinee), and open-captioned performance on 3/12 (evening); see notes on ticketing page for best accessible seating options.
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with intermission.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.