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REVIEW: Down the Rabbit Hole of Deceit in Dear Evan Hansen (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

The company of the North American tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

If you do not already know the plot of Dear Evan Hansen, be warned: this review is chock full of plot spoilers about the musical now playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.

Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is a mess. He is a high school senior a bundle of anxieties, insecurities, and general social ineptitude. He talks to a therapist and takes anxiety medication, but if any of this is helping…one can barely imagine what he was like prior to getting assistance.

The plot of “Dear Evan Hansen” in some ways parallels the film Awakenings and the well-known novella Flowers for Algernon. As in those works, something seemingly miraculous intervenes to raise Evan up from his near-catatonic stake, to a point where he is (briefly) thriving, seemingly with no more need for medical or other assistance. However, in a similar parallel, it all comes crashing down again, and by the end of the Dear Evan Hansen our protagonist has been returned to nearly where he started, albeit with some hope of slow, gradual improvement. (There is a question of whether even this ending is too unrealistically optimistic, but a more negative ending might have left the audience as desperate and suicidal as a number of the characters in the play.) This story is spun out in musical form to music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a book by Steven Levenson, in a show that earned six Tony Awards (including Best Score and Best Musical) on Broadway.

The event that transforms Evan’s life is a chance encounter on the first day of Evan’s senior year with another loser, the school’s freak and druggie Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith). The two had already interacted earlier that school day, with Connor as bully, pushing Evan to the ground. Now, Connor comes across a pep letter Evan wrote to himself (“Dear Evan Hansen, …”) on his therapist’s order; Connor takes Evan’s letter and leaves. When Connor commits suicide shortly thereafter, with Evan’s letter still in his possession, Connor’s parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll) assume that the letter is a suicide note – and, in a key misreading, that Evan was actually Connor’s close friend.

Stephen Christopher Anthony (center) stepped in to play Evan Hansen in the reviewed performance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Connor’s parents ask to meet with Evan, at a point where Evan does not yet know what Connor had done. Evan does not have the heart – or the courage – to tell them the truth. Then Evan’s nerdy near-friends, Alana Beck (Ciara Alyse Harris) and Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith), talk Evan into trying to keep Connor’s memory alive through the “Connor Project,” which becomes a social media sensation when a speech Connor at a school assembly goes viral. Fabrications made with the best of intentions lead to more lies and ever more intricate false narratives.

Over the course of the show, Connor insinuates himself into the Murphy family: they need to hear his made-up stories of a better and more hopeful Connor, and he gets the near-parental attention that he misses at home. (His father disappeared long ago, and his mother, Heidi Hansen – played by Jessica Phillips – is too overworked to be around much). Also, Evan has a longstanding crush on Connor’s younger sister, Zoe (Maggie McKenna), and now he has an excuse to be near her. In a parallel with modern advocacy post-tragedy, Connor Project becomes a general rallying cry to stop lonely teens from committing suicide (connected with the rousing song, “You Will Be Found”). The Project even crowdfunds the creation of a Connor Memorial Forest, at the spot where Evan claimed he and Connor had enjoyed days of meaningful friendship.

We suddenly see a different Evan: one who has a girlfriend and has become almost popular at school. He has a surrogate father discussing the sort of trivia about breaking in baseball gloves and “doing things the right way” that fathers are supposed to do, and his surrogate parents are even talking about using the money put aside for Connor’s college education to pay for Evan. However, the seams are starting to unravel: Evan’s near-friends do not like the person he has become, Jared is tired of helping Evan create fictional old e-mails from Connor, and Alana is starting to suspect the truth of the whole story. Evan’s mother balks at her son’s new ties to the Murphy’s, as well as the lies he told her to keep his new life from her. Under pressure, Evan confesses all, first to the Murphy’s and his mother, and then to everyone else. In the play’s final scene, it is a year later, and Evan (working his way through community college) meets up with Zoe, who is about to graduate high school. There is no fairy tale happy ending of the two getting back together romantically, but we do have Zoe reassuring Evan that the Memorial Forest has helped the Murphy family heal.

Even more than most shows, Dear Evan Hansen works or falters based on the performance of its lead. On the evening I saw the performance, Ben Levi Ross was unable to perform, and Stephen Christopher Anthony took on the role of Evan Hansen. (Anthony was already scheduled to perform in that role for the Saturday and Sunday performances, and will permanently take over the lead role in the touring cast come September). Anthony did not disappoint in his performance. He captures the look and feel of the lonely nerdy kid loser perfectly: always looking down, talking too fast, saying all the wrong things, gesturing wildly with his hands, and with his face displaying every anxiety in a way that can be seen even in the back row. Anthony’s singing captures the full range of Evan the character, from quiet and fragile to occasionally breaking into confident emotion.

Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy and Jessica Phillips as Heidi Hansen in the North American tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The whole cast is brilliant. Both Jessica Phillips as Heidi Hansen and Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy perfectly illustrate mothers trying valiantly, if not always successfully, to raise troubled children (displayed in the wonderful song, “Anybody Have a Map?”). Also pitch-perfect are Ciara Alyse Harris as nerdy, lonely Alan Beck; Jared Goldsmith as “family friend” and sex-obsessed Jared Kleinman; and Aaron Lazar as the confused and emotionally repressed Larry Murphy. Marrick Smith has the difficult role of trying to display Connor’s suicidal loneliness in a handful of moments at the beginning of the play, and then appearing throughout the rest of the play as the “imagined Connor” of Evan’s and Jared’s storytelling. Maggie McKenna has perhaps the most complex character, Zoe: who hated her brother while he was alive, and has much to do to work through her feelings about her parents and the various versions of Connor and Evan that are presented to her.

The production has a distinctive look, thanks to Director Michael Grief, Scenic Designer David Korins, and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini. It is minimal stage, with either no props or just a single bed or a single sofa. Taking up our attention are projections of social media posts and e-mail messages, reminding us of the constant barrage of communication that can crowd all of us in without necessarily doing much to lessen the loneliness of many.

It is a wonderful, but also emotionally draining night of theater. Hennepin Theatre Trust, along with Fraser (a mental health service provider) will host a penal discussion with industry experts and a cast member from “Dear Evan Hansen,” and moderated by KSTP’s Ken Barlow, on Monday, June 3, at 7:00 pm, at 900 Hennepin.

Dear Evan Hansen plays at the Orpheum Theatre through June 9, 2019.

Brian Bix