Depending on your perspective or cynicism, the title character of Dear Evan Hansen (DEH) is either a jerk or a sympathetic soul. Maybe he’s both? That decision is definitely up to the audience but getting there can bring on a whole bunch of feels along the way.
The Tony-winning musical opened Tuesday night at Bass Hall as part of its Broadway at the Bass series.
DEH is certainly a show of its times centering on the high school character and his circle of not-quite-friends. Conversations were often held through text or chat which are cleverly staged. But the human interactions were where the real drama was between teens, adults and then teens and their parents. DEH was certainly no 90210, however.
The story centers on an anxiety-ridden Evan Hansen (Sam Primack) who stirs up the emotions of those around him by inserting himself into the story of Connor Murphy (Nikhil Saboo), a schoolmate who committed suicide. Through the misunderstandings and deception, Evan finds a solace in the Murphy family with a father (John Hemphill) he never had and a mother (Claire Rankin) who is actually home as opposed to his own (Jessica E. Sherman) who is either working or at night classes to become a paralegal. He also finds himself closer to his crush Zoe (Stephanie LaRochelle), Connor’s sister.
A letter Evan was writing to himself as part of his therapy was picked up by Connor and then later found on him that was misconstrued as Connor’s last words. Evan then feels caught up to perpetuate the mistake with the help of his “family friend” Jared (Alessandro Costantini). Things get so out of hand that schoolmate Alana feels so much for her “good acquaintance” that she develops a blog and ultimately a fundraiser and project that Evan becomes co-president of.
Primack (who is actually the alternate Evan in the cast) brought so many levels to Evan through nuanced tics and vocal expression. His singing was something to behold and at 20, he carried the show with the mastery of those many years his elder. The surprise performances of the night however belonged to Sherman, Costantini and Hemphill. It’s his character that causes a dilemma of reaction. Even though the character’s intentions were questionable, Primack gave such heart and likability to Evan that he made it difficult to approach him in black and white shades. The performance was really something exceptional.
As Connor’s father, Hemphill began as a stoic father who held in his grief but as he unpacked his sorrow, it was quietly devastating to see him let go of his son.
Playing the comic relief, Costantini sort of served as the audience noting the ridiculousness of this situation but also, like the audience, he let his character get swept up by the emotions of it.
Sherman was simply magnificent as Evan’s conflicted mother. Portraying a mother who first, is trying to keep it together with a full schedule, a teenage son and spending time with him, she was earnest and determined. As the musical unfolded, Sherman let Heidi Hansen’s cracks break open with fierce heartbreak.
DEH‘s power was in its songs. They are clever and memorable and allowed the characters to deliver a range of feelings whether its Evan’s nerve-ridden “If I Could Tell Her” or Heidi’s dramatic “So Big/So Small.”
Dear Evan Hansen plays through Sunday at Bass Performance Hall.
– Rich Lopez