Theatre Review: Dear Evan Hansen is a modern musical masterpiece
Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead!
Dear Evan Hansen is one of the biggest musicals on the planet, and Broadway Across Canada’s production at Queen Elizabeth Theatre showed why with a powerful opening night performance.
Evan Hansen, performed superbly by Sam Primack, is a high school student suffering from anxiety. As part of his homework to deal with it, Evan writes letters to himself outlining what will hopefully be good about each day. These become the titular Dear Evan Hansen letters.
Dear Evan Hansen has a tight but mighty cast. We meet Evan’s mother, Heidi, played by Torontonian Jessica E. Sherman. Heidi suggests Evan try to make friends by asking people to sign his arm cast (the one on the now-famous poster).
The audience is introduced to the Murphy family soon after. Evan has a huge crush on Zoe Murphy, played by Ottawa-born Stephanie La Rochelle, and reveals it in a letter addressed to himself. A series of misunderstandings leads to Zoe’s angry brother, Connor, played by Noah Kieserman, reading the letter and taking it with him. Connor is a bully, shoving Evan down and closing himself off from his parents. But there is a hurt inside of him that is also evident.
Shortly thereafter, Connor kills himself and Evan’s letter is found in his pocket. Cynthia and Larry Murphy, played by Claire Rankin and John Hemphill, mistakenly assume Connor wrote the letter to his friend, Evan.
Evan goes along with the new narrative of being Connor’s best friend, creating stories about their friendship to help ease the Murphy family’s pain. Soon, the well-intentioned-but-false stories spread throughout the school. Classmates are praising their past classmate and create the Connor Murphy Project with Hansen. But the lies are piling up, and so too are suspicions of Evan’s stories.
The cast is uniformly strong, with excellent character work, comedic timing, and singing. Kieserman as Connor is full of anger and sadness at the beginning and adds levels to the character as the show progresses. La Rochelle, Rankin, and Hemphill show us the reality of a family struggling with the death of a son and brother, eliciting empathy from the audience. “Requiem” in Act One is a moving highlight for the family.
The supporting cast has their moments to shine as well. Sudbury-born Alessandro Costantini as Jared Kleinman and Ciara Alyse Harris as Alana Beck are fantastic as Evan’s classmates and partners in the Connor Murphy Project. There’s are key moments in Act Two when Jared and Alana ratchet up the tension for Evan. There are real stakes to the web of lies that he has built, and they keep the energy up through to the climax of the show.
Sherman is a stand-out as Heidi, struggling to balance being a single mom and her job as a nurse. When she sings, “Your mom isn’t going anywhere. Your mom is staying right here.” in “So Big/So Small,” Heidi not only connects with her son but also with the entire audience.
And Primack, who is the alternate Evan Hansen stepping in to perform on opening night, is a powerhouse of a singer and actor. Sam encapsulates Evan’s yearning and exuberance through physical movements, facial expressions, and his songs. You’ll have “For Forever” playing in your head long after the show is over.
Dear Evan Hansen features a book by Tony Award-winner Steven Levenson and is strongly directed by four-time Tony Award nominee Michael Greif. The show keeps a fast pace and never lags in its two-and-a-half-hour run time. The live band also keeps the energy up by bringing the beautiful and varied score by Grammy, Tony and Academy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to life.
Teen suicide may not be the first subject matter you think of when it comes to Broadway musicals, but Dear Evan Hansen is a modern musical masterpiece and absolutely worthy of all its accolades.
In “Waving Through A Window,” Evan asks, “Did I even make a sound?” The answer is yes, and it’s a beautiful one.
Dear Evan Hansen
When: Now until March 1, 2020
Time: Various times
Where: Queen Elizabeth Theatre — 630 Hamilton Street, Vancouver