Stephen Christopher Anthony (center) in Dear Evan Hansen
It’s hard not to look at the Tony Award-winning Dear Evan Hansen
through the lens of farce—which potentially could be all kinds of awkward, since this is a story about teen suicide.
Because when you consider the basic premise of the show, which opened its touring-company stop in Salt Lake City Wednesday night, what other descriptor applies? It’s the tale of a socially anxious 17-year-old, Evan Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony), whose therapist has assigned him the task of writing letters to himself with upbeat affirmations. So when one of those letters addressed to “Dear Evan Hansen” ends up in the pocket of troubled classmate Connor (Noah Kieserman) when Connor takes his own life, it’s presumed to be a suicide note—and Evan presumed to be a best friend to someone he barely knew. That’s a misconception he ends up building on once it’s clear that Connor’s parents (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin) desperately need some connection to the son they believe they failed, and because it brings him closer to Connor’s sister Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle), whom Evan has long adored from afar.
There are occasions when Dear Evan Hansen
does play this scenario for the broad laughs it seems built for, particularly when a classmate (Alessandro Costantini) helps Evan create a fictionalized email exchange between himself and Connor in the lively number “Sincerely, Me.” And there’s a rich vein of social satire built into the scenic design by David Korins, which surrounds Evan and the rest of the characters with projections of social-media posts, emphasizing a world in which all of us are constantly manufacturing identities for ourselves for the approval of others.
But that same idea also informs the deep sadness at the core of this story: a profound sense of emotional isolation, whether it’s teens from the happiness they think everybody but them is experiencing, or parents from the teen children becoming people they don’t really know or understand. Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land
, The Greatest Showman
) have a unique ability to combine earwormy pop song-craft with profound melancholy, and songs like “Waving Through a Window,” Disappear” and the anthemic “You Will Be Found” resound with emotion.
A whole lot of that emotion comes from the soaring vocal range required of the actor playing Evan Hansen, and the touring production’s lead actor Stephen Christopher Anthony proves more than up to the task. His phrasing echoes some of the clipped cadences brought to the songs by the role’s originator, Ben Platt, but Anthony brings his own yearning to the showcase solos. The company’s other standout is Jessica E. Sherman as Evan’s single mom Heidi, who radiates the anguish of a parent who isn’t sure if she can ever do enough to fix what she sees as broken.
It’s kind of remarkable that these disparate foundational elements—a farcical set-up and bone-deep anguish—come together for something so effective. Dear Evan Hansen
never uses teen suicide or mental health issues for cheap emotional payoff; it understands the poor choices people can make when trying to fill in their empty places. Farce, after all, is about people dealing with the chain-reaction consequences of their often-well-intended mistakes. Sometimes they make you laugh, and sometimes they make you cry.