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The national tour of Dear Evan Hansen offers a testament to the power of an unforgettable performance. Unfortunately, that performance can’t be seen on the stage of the Shubert Organization’s Forrest Theatre during the musical’s two-week Philadelphia engagement.
No, that indelible characterization belongs to Ben Platt, who originated the title role when this show opened on Broadway in 2016. In addition to a Tony Award, Platt earned the sort of plaudits that come around maybe once in a generation. Think Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl or Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie: a star-is-born sensation that lucky audiences will talk about for years to come.
Sure, Platt received his fair share of scorn when he reprised the role in an ill-fated film adaptation last year. Pundits rightly pointed out that he was now too old to convincingly play a teenager, and heaped ridicule on his truly awful hair. More to the point, his conception of the socially awkward, deeply anxious Evan—initially so full of nuance and restraint—had become mannered and broad.
But even that woebegone attempt to recapture the magic of the original experience couldn’t dim the memories of what had been. And seeing the musical now, nearly six years later, throws into stark relief the effect that Platt’s performance had on obscuring much of the material’s more problematic elements.
With a score by Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a libretto from acclaimed playwright Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen centers on the aftermath of a high-school tragedy. When isolated teenager Connor Murphy dies by suicide, his equally dejected classmate Evan fabricates a friendship to engender sympathy and improve his social standing. The ruse succeeds in large part because Connor was found with a letter in his pocket that Evan had written to himself.
A ridiculed outcast in life, Connor becomes a venerated figure in death, his memory used to spearhead a vapid teen organization called The Connor Project. Evan works his supposed connection to get close to the dead boy’s family and ultimately begins dating his sister, Zoe. Connor’s wealthy, detached parents virtually adopt him as a surrogate son. Other classmates use Connor’s legacy to burnish their own reputations.
The ruse ultimately becomes clear, but not before the point is made that Evan’s lies and fantasies—no matter how personally destructive they may be—have provided some help and comfort to many. When I first encountered this message, I wanted to believe it was a sharp critique of a social-media culture that rewards shallow sloganeering and keeping up appearances. Yet it now feels abundantly clear that Dear Evan Hansen buys the narrative it so smugly sells.
Four years on the road
Perhaps that was always the case, but it didn’t feel as apparent when the production was anchored by real acting. Michael Greif’s slick, fast-moving direction also helped by not lingering long enough in any moment to really investigate what was underpinning it, and David Korins’s set design smartly emblazons the cacophony of social media on every surface, showing how retweets and Facebook sharing can overtake original thought.
The flaws are all too evident in the tour, which is now entering its fourth year on the road. The performances are big and generalized, with little individuality and even less connection. Shrieking and sobbing have become stand-ins for genuine emotion. Only Micaela Lamas—as the terminally ambitious Alana Beck, who gloms onto Connor’s memory and uses it as means to an end—resembles an actual person.
Anthony Norman plays Evan as nervy and frenzied; well into his 20s, he tries too hard to communicate youthful instability. As Zoe, Alaina Anderson plays one sullen note all night long. Neither sings particularly well, although Anderson is at least consistently on pitch.
Coleen Sexton is a harried, stereotypical presence as Evan’s overworked mother, Heidi, and although she screams as much as she sings, it’s hard to blame her for the deficits of a clichéd role. The musical’s treatment of mothers is regressive and facile—Heidi crushes herself under the weight of single-parent expectations, while Zoe and Connor’s mother, Cynthia (Lili Thomas), is a caricature of clueless suburban wealth, a purveyor of gluten-free lasagna and empty platitudes.
A loathsome show
In the end, Dear Evan Hansen wants to have its gluten-free lasagna and eat it, too. It wags a finger at Evan’s actions while ultimately endorsing the outcomes they facilitate. It offers the mildest critique of online culture imaginable. It peddles the hollow message that “you are not alone” without ever truly exploring what might drive a young man like Connor to end his life, or what would cause Evan to create an elaborate, harmful fiction just to feel connected to something.
It's a loathsome show with a reprehensible message: that deception and self-aggrandizement are permissible under the guise of the greater good. And without the skill of a singular performer, there’s just no hiding the truth.
What, When, Where
Dear Evan Hansen. By Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson; directed by Michael Greif. Through August 28, 2022, at the Shubert Organization’s Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. $59-$197. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
Face masks are optional.
Designated wheelchair seating is available in the orchestra section of the Forrest Theatre. The mezzanine is accessible only by stairs. Accessible seating can be purchased in advance by calling (866) 300-9761. There will be an audio-described and ASL-interpreted performance of Dear Evan Hansen on Friday, August 19 at 8pm.
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