SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, March 6, 2020 (Gephardt Daily) — My main question about the wildly popular musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” similar to “Hamilton” before it, was, would it live up to the hype?
I’ve been wanting to see the show for ages; this Salt Lake City run at the Eccles Theater through March 14 is the first time it has played in Utah.
The musical, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Steven Levenson, tells the story of a young man with a social anxiety disorder who receives an assignment from his therapist to write letters to himself about why each day will be good (hence the name, “Dear Evan Hansen”). When one of his letters ends up in the hands of someone else, it sets off a chain of events that has life-changing consequences for both Evan and those around him.
It doesn’t exactly sound like a plot that would lead to the same rabid rock star groupie-like following that “Hamilton” has, and yet, “Dear Evan Hansen” has been playing to sold-out audiences on Broadway since December 2016. (And I mean, when you think about it, who would have guessed a musical about a forgotten American Founding Father would be that crazy popular?!)
In addition, at the 2017 Tony Awards, “Dear Evan Hansen” was nominated for nine awards, winning six, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Actor in a Musical for Ben Platt, and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Rachel Bay Jones.
And the Salt Lake City run is totally sold out, save for the $25 ticket lottery. I have numerous friends who waited in hours-long virtual queues online the moment the tickets went on sale. So I was extra curious to see if the show was all I heard and expected it would be.
And the answer is: It is one of the most flawless shows I’ve ever seen. I was profoundly moved by everything about it, and judging by faces of the audience members around me, the rest of the opening-night crowd was too.
The performances are truly beautiful, and poignant without ever becoming melodramatic. The cast is led by Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan, who also understudied the role on Broadway. We first meet Evan sitting on his bed, stressing deeply about his first day back at school as a senior. Anthony skillfully makes Evan incredibly awkward, communicated by his intonation, repetitive movements and body language around other characters. And yet when he sings, his voice is rich, beautiful, sonorous. His personality and his singing voice are completely at odds with each other, and in the hands of a lesser actor and director that could be quite nonsensical. And yet Anthony makes it work; it’s as if when he sings, a confidence he does not have manifests itself, and we can see a more assertive version of Evan.
The other characters also achieve a lovely balance between the spoken scenes, which even in a very large theater seem completely intimate and subtle and when they sing, where there is a heightened expression and communication between them. A perfect example of this is when Evan’s potential love interest, Zoe Murphy, played by Stephanie La Rochelle, sings “Requiem” with her parents, Larry, played by John Hemphill, and Cynthia, played by Claire Rankin. It’s definitely a standout moment. Evan’s mother Heidi, too, played by Jessica E. Sherman, is ill at ease around her son, stumbling through ways to talk to him. And yet when she sings, it’s as if her personality is unleashed without apology or filter.
This balance is also thanks to the finely tuned direction by Michael Greif. In addition, Greif makes effective use of the only occasion all the eight characters are onstage, as if Evan has finally assimilated all he’s been through and is ready to hold on, not let go.
There is a ninth character in “Dear Evan Hansen” and that is the overarching specter of social media. The scenic design, by David Korins, is truly staggering, made up of movable panels on which threads on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are projected. Projections are by Peter Nigrini. These projections really communicate how quickly things can go viral and become bigger than ourselves; I felt a sense of anxiety, of things moving fast and frantically at times when there are many, many different projections. The lighting by Japhy Weideman only reinforces this notion; sometimes it’s small and intimate, but in the sequences when social media is going crazy, it’s big and rock-concert like, highlighting how intense and addicting it can be to be part of something online. The music, too, is consistently dramatic; there is a large live band on stage, suspended on an oversize disc above the action.
Because the lighting and projections are larger than life, the costumes by Emily Rebholz are realistic and understated; they subtly highlight characters’ journeys. Evan at the beginning is much more nerdy, where Evan at the end appears older, a little cooler, more confident.
At the end of the show, there was a standing ovation, with many audience members in tears. The show leaves both young and older with an intense message: that we need to see those around us, be kind, be present, and at the same time, compose a love letter to ourselves whenever we need it.
The irony of an evening at this show is that we put down our cell phones to watch a musical about the power of true connection, of reaching out and connecting, and then at the end of the curtain call, you see audience members frantically grabbing their phones, going back to a detached, virtual world. And there’s another takeaway there: Don’t forget the real world is right there in front of us.