Theatre Review: Broadway Across America Season Roars Out of the Gate with ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Broadway Across America Season Roars Out of the Gate with ‘Dear Evan Hansen’Photo by Matthew Murphy courtesy of CAPA
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Dear Evan Hansen is the rare contemporary Broadway musical to captivate a wide swath of public attention. On every trip I’ve made to NYC since its transfer from Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theater to the great white way, I’ve seen more Playbills for and overheard more conversations about this show by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) and Steven Levenson (book).

The first national tour kicks off its second year in Columbus, debuting Stephen Christopher Anthony in the title role. Anthony brings a bone-deep understanding to the character, gained from understudying the role on Broadway.

Dear Evan Hansen balances the intimacy of a chamber musical with the big, operatic moments required for Broadway. This interesting mix of Next to Normal and Two Boys follows a year at high school where Hansen’s therapist’s suggestion he write letters to himself to build confidence gets mistaken for a suicide note from Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith). 

The implied relationship between Evan and Connor erupts into a whirlwind of attention for someone who’s felt invisible his whole life, as, with the help of fellow outsiders Jared (Jared Goldsmith) and Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), he leans into the attention until he almost snaps. This rushing river of deception grows to include ingratiating himself with Connor’s family, parents Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Christiane Noll), and his crush Zoe (Maggie McKenna). 

Photo by Matthew Murphy Courtesy of CAPA

The score is hobbled by too many songs sounding too similar, but the couple exceptions burn into the listener’s brain and they’re sung beautifully. The full company soars on “You Will Be Found,” ascending to becoming a standard. Anthony and McKenna’s voices spark off each other in duets like “If I Could Tell Her” and “Only Us,” and Jane Pfitsch (as Evan’s Mom) crushes “So Big/So Small.” Smith stands out as Connor’s ghost, a Greek-chorus-of-one who reminds us how we take people for granted.

The tour, directed by Michael Greif, uses a set full of screens (designed by David Korins with Amanda Stephens as associate scenic designer) as effective as I’ve ever seen. It juggles the in-your-face verité qualities required by raging teenage emotions with sly commentary – aided by a small band staged above the actors and sharp, evocative lighting by Japhy Weideman and sound by Nevin Steinberg.

If your interest is piqued by all the buzz about this show, or if you have teenagers yourself, this tour of Dear Evan Hansen delivers. It feels a safe bet we’ll see these young actors again and again for years. 

Dear Evan Hansen runs through September 22 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday, and 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit columbus.broadway.com/shows/dear-evan-hansen.

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