By: Kevin Rolfe
Every once in a while we’ll get a musical that has been written in the present tense, with modern themes and modern lessons. Sure you’ll have a show like Hamilton which has many modern elements and musical stylings, but the story takes place over 200 years ago. I’m talking about shows like Hair, which in which the story took place in the ’70s and debuted on Broadway in the ’70s. Another show like this that comes to mind is Rent from the ‘90s. The show takes place in the ‘90s, it’s themes are from current events of the day and the show debuted on Broadway in the ‘90s. You get the idea. Now we have Dear Evan Hansen. A story for our time.
The press release for Dear Evan Hansen describes the show as such.
“A letter that was never meant to be seen, a lie that was never meant to be told, a life he never dreamed he could have. Evan Hansen is about to get the one thing he’s always wanted: a chance to finally fit in. DEAR EVAN HANSEN is the deeply personal and profoundly contemporary musical about life and the way we live it.”
Now I’d love to explain in more detail what the show is about, but I don’t want to spoil it for people who have not seen it. What I will say as a disclaimer is there may be some mild spoilers in this review in order to discuss some of the cast and the music from the show. If you want to go into the show totally fresh I get it. That’s how I am. Hold off on reading this until you’ve seen the show. Then come on back and read the review. We’re not going anywhere. If you’d like to keep reading, rest assured we won’t spoil any major story plotlines of reveals. Now, on with the review!
Stephen Christopher Anthony, who played the title role of Evan Hansen immediately impressed me. I can’t think of anything more difficult than making a role your own and having the audience accept you in that role when it is so deeply connected to another actor. Ben Platt is Evan Hansen to many people. And rightfully so. He won the Tony Award for the role, he performed not only on the Tony Awards broadcast but on pretty much every TV show the year Dear Evan Hansen came out. If you love this musical, you most likely love Ben Platt and see him as the title character. But I knew within minutes that I was going to love Mr. Anthony’s portrayal of Evan Hansen. The role has a ton of range. One scene you’re belly laughing and the next you’re fighting back tears. It takes an amazing actor to take you on that journey and Stephen Christopher Anthony was up to the task. He made Evan Hansen so relatable. I found myself thinking, “I totally know someone like that.” Or, “That’s totally me!”. I was so invested in his story and that was largely due to Anthony’s portrayal.
Dear Evan Hansen won the Tony Award for Best Book. Best Book is anything that is not sung. So essentially, the script. So often in musicals, a book can go unnoticed or just facilitate a show to get to the next song. But the book in Dear Evan Hansen stands out so much. I love the music in this show, and obviously a huge reason people love this show, but I believe the book is so strong that this could have been a straight play and it still would have been amazing and impactful. The book is much of the reason we laughed, cried and cringed at times within this performance.
The cast as a whole was remarkable. The powerful thing about this production is the manner in which they’ve taken on the serious topics of our day. The cast creatively found levity in social anxiety and even suicide without making light of it. The cast brilliantly displays the challenges of today’s youth that are unique to these times. With the numerous screens and video panels, they’re able to impactfully show the power social media has for both good and bad. The set was simple but effective in allowing us to use our imagination to visualize teenagers video chatting or a family sitting inside the living room of a large beautiful home. I loved Stephanie La Rochelle’s portrayal of Zoe. It was clear why Evan Hanson would like Zoe, and yet she’s much more than just the love interest in this show. I enjoyed watching Zoe’s character arc throughout the production. Noah Kieserman plays the challenging role of Connor. So much of the show is about him, and yet Connor pops in and out of the show randomly. It could be easy to forget about the character, but Kieserman does a great job with his stage time. Claire Rankin and John Hemphill seemed like a real married couple. They powerfully performed the struggles of continuing on after their child commits suicide. Jessica E. Sherman was wonderful in her performance as Evan’s single mom working, going to school and trying to care for her son at the same time. There wasn’t one person in this cast that I didn’t enjoy. Even Alessandro Constantini who is supposed to be obnoxious in his portrayal of Evan Hansen’s “family friend”, Jared Kleinman, found ways to give us moments to find likeability in his character. I loved this cast. I don’t know how they perform the range of emotions that this musical requires night in and night out. They are elite in their craft.
Finally, it would be impossible to discuss this musical without discussing well, the music. Utah has a deep love affair with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul the writers of the music and lyrics of Dear Evan Hansen. Also known for their Academy Award and Golden Globe-winning work on the fils La La Land and The Greatest Showman, Pasek and Paul endeared Utah fans to their work even more with Dear Evan Hansen. Following the opening number “Anybody Have a Map?” the audience roared. Their passion for this music was made even more obvious after the first act closer, “You Will Be Found”. I remember thinking after the first act how amazing the songs were and how could there possibly be more songs this good in the second act. But as you know, there were incredible songs in the second act. Songs like “Only Us” and “Good For You” were beautiful. And “So Big/ So Small” seemed to connect with every mother in the audience. I make it a point to not listen to the soundtrack of a musical until I’ve seen the show in person. I made this personal rule when I was frequenting Broadway a little more often than I’m able to these days. The wait to hear this music has been excruciating. But I’m glad I finally got to hear it and as you might expect, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack on repeat.
This is a musical that will last for years and years. But I think due to its modern message it needs to be seen as soon as possible. I think it would do all of us a lot of good to see a musical like this. I loved this production. So thank you, Evan Hansen, for doing what you’re doing.
Dear Evan Hansen runs until March 14. The run is sold out but there is still an opportunity to see it for only $25! Dear Evan Hansen is having a digital drawing in Salt Lake City. Click here to enter!