By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
What does it feel like to live in a buzzing world of cross-hatched ever-escalating and fading images and phrases, a metastasizing, translucent tangle of entries, posts, links, tags, photos? Where the music of the spheres (not to mention the soundtrack of your identity) is swooshing Send’s and dinging Delivered’s?
The moment you enter the theatre, that’s what hits you in David Korins’ design and Peter Nigrini’s gorgeous perpetual-motion projection thicket of Facebook and Twitter feeds for Dear Evan Hansen.
The 2016 Tony Award-winning musical (nine nominations, six wins including Best Musical) arrives at the Jube under the Broadway Across Canada banner. And with it a misfit hero for our time. He’s a lonely, awkward high school senior, pathologically shy, isolated by severe social anxiety. In fact, as played, beautifully, by Stephen Christopher Anthony, the title character is anxiety on legs (New York magazine once called Dear Evan Hansen, the “feel-anxious Broadway musical” of the decade, a line to savour).
As Evan, the slightly-built Anthony gives us a character (with a light, supple voice) who hasn’t got the confidence to be lanky. Stooped and cringing at age 17, he’s a bundle of nerve-endings. His responses trail off, sometimes into silence, sometimes into wispy fading giggles. Amongst his nervous tics are tendencies to swipe one hand on his pants (in case it might be sweaty), and brush his hands over his eyes (in case they might be sweaty too). He can’t seem to stop apologizing, for everything including his apologies. His arm is in a cast that none of his classmates feel moved to sign; that’s how invisible Evan Hansen is.
A self-help letter that he’s written to himself, as per instructions from his therapist, ends up inadvertently in the hands of the school bully Connor (Noah Kieserman). Evan is traumatized. When Connor kills himself a few days later, his parents (Claire Rankin, John Hemphill) assume that the letter in his pocket is their kid’s suicide note, and that the boys are best friends.
Evan can’t quite bring himself to tell them the truth. Partly it’s desperate eagerness for affection, the kind you get from giving people what they really really want. Partly it’s empathy; he wants to assuage the grief of sad, needy people. Partly he hungers for connection to his secret crush, Connor’s sister Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle, in a lovely alert performance, full of subterranean longing).
As Anthony’s captivating performance tells us, the motivation for the lie is complex and shaded. But it’s thoroughly believable, both in the musical itself — book by Sam Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Hasek and Justin Paul, the team who created the La La Land score — and the excellent performances of Michael Greif’s production. Incidentally, a sizeable proportion of the impressive cast is Canadian, alumnae of the Toronto Mirvish production of 2019. Don’t you wish you’d gone to a high school where the designated bully can sing like Kieserman?
Hitherto an invisible outsider in his own life as you learn in the knock-out Act I number Waving Through A Window (“step out, step out of the sun/ if you keep getting burned”), Evan finds himself centrestage in a social media storm.
It gives him attention at school: kids who had shunned both him and the surly Connor suddenly claim the closeness of the bereaved. Eye-watering loss? Bring it. And it also gives Evan access under false pretences into a dysfunctional family that wants to understand, and embraces Evan as a kind of surrogate son to replace the one they’ve lost. Meanwhile his own single mother (Jessica E. Sherman), scrambling just to keep up with her shift work and her night courses, as well as the travails of her maladjusted kid, is loving but stretched too thin. And Sherman, who creates a kind of breathless, tightly-wound character who always feels late for her own life, shines in a lovely, expansive song, So Big/ So Small, that lays it out.
More than any other contemporary musical — and hey, it’s a rare example of an original, not adapted from a movie or a book or an animation or a comic — Dear Evan Hansen had a lived-in feel, with its knowingness about the social media maze, and its uncontrollable, viral nature. Social media are the modern mythologizing machine, fuelled by the illusion of connectivity. The kids barely look at each other when they talk, they face forward or down, since they’re so used to “communicating” via electronic devices.
The world that engulfs Evan wants to own a tragedy and create a myth (the myth of Connor and the redemptive power of perfect friendship), even if the links have to be faked. One beaming over-achiever (Ciara Alyse Harris), keen to chalk up some community service points for her college application, launches a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for “The Connor Project.” Jared (Alessandro Costantini), an amusingly cynical tech-savvy smartass who writes emails from a fake account, flogs Connor merch. “You’re almost ‘popular’,” he tells Evan. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles.” Exit lines? “So what else did you completely fuck up?” He’s got a million of ’em; Costantini is note-perfect.
In You Will Be Found, an Act I Evan anthem, powerfully sung by Anthony and reprised in Act II as he is increasingly trapped by his own lie (and “found” begins to mean “found out”), he sets out his existential crisis: “Have you ever felt like you could disappear? Like you could fall, and no one would hear?” Dear Evan Hansen captures that feeling in such an under-the-skin, aspirational way that you can’t help but root for our hesitant deceiver — although the ending is a validation that, later, you’ll wonder how you bought into at the time.
Suicidal despair and parenting angst, the teen heartbreak of being an outsider observer watching life’s rich pageant go by, the tension between wanting to be an individual and at the same wanting to be, well, extraordinary … it’s all there, the aerial view and view from the ground looking up “for forever.”
Broadway Across Canada
Dear Evan Hansen
Created by: Sam Levenson (book), Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics)
Directed by: Michael Greif
Starring: Stephen Christopher Anthony, Stephanie La Rochelle, Jessica E Sherman, Claire Rankin, Noah Kieserman, John Hemphill, Alessandro Costantini, Ciara Alyse Harris
Where: Jubilee Auditorium
Running: through Sunday
Tickets: 1-855-985-5000, ticketmaster.ca