For theater lovers whose only opportunity to “see” Broadway shows is to listen to the cast recordings, there is always going to be some kind of disconnect. With the sung-through musical like Hamilton, listeners are getting the full story but lacking the visuals that make the narrative come alive. In the case of Dear Evan Hansen — being presented now by Dallas Summer Musicals — merely listening to the songs doesn’t come close to the experience seeing the show provides.
Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) is a painfully shy teenager who lives alone with his mom, Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman) and pines after Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle), a girl at his school he’s never met. He’s in therapy for an undefined mental health issue, and one of the exercises the therapist gives him is to write himself letters expressing his feelings about his life.
One of these “Dear Evan Hansen” letters winds up in the hands of Zoe’s brother Connor (Noah Kieserman), setting in motion a chain of events that force Evan to step outside of his comfort zone in a variety of ways. In doing so, he finds himself doing things he never thought he would and interacting with people who had previously been outside his small orbit.
One of Evan’s endearing traits, his inherent lack of confidence, is also one of the most frustrating. The book by Steven Levenson requires that Anthony speed through certain lines. This necessity, combined with how softly he speaks in much of the production, makes many of his lines difficult to understand. Evan is also self-deprecating, resulting in a lot of comedic moments where the resulting laughter from the audience drowns out subsequent lines in the fast-moving script. It’s possible that there were sound issues during this performance, but the nature of the character and production as a whole made this unclear.
The show presents interesting moral dilemmas for both its characters and those watching it. Intellectually, we know that certain events are not okay and will likely lead to hurt for multiple people. Emotionally, though, we want good things to happen to the characters, and once you start down the path of rooting for someone to succeed, it’s difficult to consciously choose otherwise.
The music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul plays both sides of this dilemma, as well. Many of the songs have uplifting tones that belie the message the lyrics are sending. In the context of the show, you come to understand elements that are not apparent by just hearing the words, and this shift in meaning also influences how certain characters are viewed. Standout songs include “For Forever,” “You Will Be Found,” and “Words Fail.”
Social media plays a big part in the show, with screens situated around the stage showing snippets of Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and more. It’s here that the show demonstrates both the good and bad sides of the Internet. The production contains viral videos that inspire, but also some cyberbullying against characters that don’t deserve hate. It all plays out on the screens, surrounding the action so that the audience cannot look away.
Anthony makes for a highly appealing Evan. The character is mostly introverted with occasional moments of getting outside of himself, and Anthony plays both sides extremely well. His voice is not standard issue Broadway, but it works great for the character. The rest of the cast are excellent complements to him, especially Sherman and La Rochelle.
The journey through which Dear Evan Hansen takes audiences is emotionally complex but thoroughly rewarding. Don’t confuse it for a blockbuster, though; it’s an intimate show with songs and characters that hide their truths until just the right moments.
Dear Evan Hansen will be presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at The Music Hall at Fair Park through December 8.