WARNING: SPOILER ALERT
Yesterday I had the privilege of going to see a popular musical, newer to Chicago, Dear Evan Hansen, at the James M. Nederlander Theatre (formerly The Oriental). I always feel lucky whenever I get the chance to experience theatre of any kind. Based on the book by Steven Levenson, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the story explores the struggles of the eponymous character, Evan Hansen. After the suicide of fellow high school student, Connor Murphy, Evan gets himself into a deep web of lies after a note he addressed to himself for therapeutic purposes is found on Connor’s person at the time of his death.
Evan ingratiates himself with Connor’s affluent family as a result, getting closer to his longtime crush and Connor’s sister, Zoe Murphy, and gaining the attention of Connor’s parents, who begin to serve as adoptive parents, without his mother’s knowledge. Strange as this seems, it makes more sense when we learn that Evan struggles with crippling social anxiety, perhaps in part due to his father’s abandonment of him and his mother at a young age. We also learn that his mother, while incredibly loving and concerned about Evan, is barely around, working full-time and going to night school for a paralegal certification in the hopes of providing for Evan. In addition to gaining a surrogate nuclear family that cater to his emotional needs, Evan also receives the first ever acknowledgment of his existence from his peers, solely due to the claim of being Connor’s one and only friend and champion before his suicide.
The musical peruses subjects that are very pertinent and contemporary, from teenage suicide, depression, dysfunctional families to social media and bullying. Stephen Christopher Anthony, at the helm of the cast portraying Evan, was very vocally impressive, covering a very wide musical and emotional range with apparent ease, strength and control. I was also impressed by the talent of the rest of the cast, notably young Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy and Jessica Phillips as Heidi Hansen (Evan’s mother). The latter’s acting ability was very natural and it was her tender song to comfort Evan after his confession, “So Big/So Small”, that brought the audience to tears with its emotional conveyance of the love between mother and child.
Another aspect I really enjoyed was the set design by David Korins and production design by Peter Nigrini. It was unique to anything I’ve ever seen, with moving screens portraying snippets of social media, online conversations, and excerpts from Evan and “Connor’s” emails. It oscillated from a stark display of words in black and white to a claustrophobic aggregation of text exchanges, Twitter profiles, and Instagram videos. This accurately evoked the cyclical experience of today’s “teenage-dom”; intense, despairing loneliness as a result of the overwhelming and dangerous unreality of social media.
What I struggled with primarily, was the story resolution. Evan is the protagonist, no doubt, and it’s very obvious to me that nothing he does is with a malicious intent. That said, his continuous lying and manipulation of the Murphy family for his own emotional gain, didn’t sit well with me. Yes, he finally admits the Connor emails were manufactured, as was his entire friendship with Connor. Even with his confession, we don’t hear much from the Murphy family other than from Zoe a year later that Evan’s meddling actually brought her parent’s closer together. Also completely ignored is the fallout between Evan and his accomplice in the charade, Jared Kleinman, who threatens to expose him. Same goes with Evan’s Co-President of The Connor Murphy Project, Alana Beck, who astutely notices the discrepancies in the emails supposedly written between Connor to Evan.
To me, it felt inappropriate to completely obliviate any real consequences for Evan. He’s not a bad person and I wasn’t rooting against him, but I don’t agree with the message that manipulating people on such a large scale, even without malicious intent, should go essentially unpunished. The pristine resolution lessened the credibility of the story, which until the end, maintained a very authentic complexity, especially in its exploration of broken families and youth today.
For these reasons, Dear Evan Hansen did not resonate with me on a deep level. I’m glad I saw it and enjoyed it for the novelty of its subject matter and set design, but I didn’t evoke the emotions that perhaps I expected it to. The music, while adeptly performed by both cast and orchestra, blends together with the exception of a few standouts, like “You Will Be Found” and “So Big/So Small”. I certainly don’t have the enthusiasm or interest in further research as I did with the last musical I saw, Hamilton, but that’s okay; not every show can be your favorite!
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