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DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Shea’s has “Broadway quality” performers bring powerful messages of atonement, forgiveness, and acceptance

THE BASICS: DEAR EVAN HANSEN, the national touring production of the Broadway musical presented by Shea’s and Albert Nocciolino opened on May 14 and runs through May 19, this Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, Sunday at 2 and 7 at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main Street (1-800-745-3000). Runtime: A little under 3 hours including one 15-minute intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Evan Hansen is a high school senior, a loner with severe social anxiety whose therapist has suggested that he write a letter to himself each day that should begin with “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a great day, and here’s why:”  Evan always ends his letters with “Sincerely, Me.” One day the school bully, a somewhat psychopathic loner, Connor Murphy, finds one of Evan’s letters left in the printer and to tease Evan, keeps it in his pocket. Later, after Connor has committed suicide, the family finds the letter and assumes that a. Connor wrote the letter to Evan, b. that Connor, the loner, had at least one friend, and c. that by befriending Evan they could get to know their estranged son. As Connor’s sister, Zoe Murphy, is the object of Evan’s desire, he goes along with all that. Lie is heaped upon lie, abetted by two high school friends who are adept at social media, until the whole fabrication comes crashing down. It’s a musical in which everybody, high schoolers and parents alike, has problems expressing emotions and everyone is feeling ignored, isolated, and alone, but in the end, there is a positive message of atonement, forgiveness, and acceptance.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: With only eight characters, and never all on stage at the same time, this musical focuses intently on each performer, either as a soloist, or in duet and trio, with small, fairly simple sets (a single bed, or a living room couch, or a dining room table) which can be whisked away up-stage as the action continues downstage.  The giant Shea’s stage is draped with scrims upon which are projected various social media posts, slowly scrolling, which are what you see as you enter the theater. This is used very cleverly before each act to remind the audience to silence their phones. And it created a “life imitates art” moment when I looked out over the audience before each act and saw all those tiny screens throughout the seats, and projections of other tiny screens up on the stage.

I did not see DEAR EVAN HANSEN on Broadway, but I have listened to the original Broadway cast recording and can report that the touring Evan, Ben Levi Ross, sounds pretty darn close to the Tony Award winning (2017 Best Actor in a Musical) Ben Platt, in a score that requires constantly shifting from chest voice to head voice and back again. No easy trick. Note: the weekend matinees will feature Stephen Christopher Anthony in the role of Evan Hansen.

And Jessica Phillips (who plays Evan’s mother, Heidi Hansen, on this tour) sounded, to me, exactly like Rachel Bay Jones who won the 2017 Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony Award.

Is it suitable for younger children? Well, there are several four-letter words, including the f-word in various forms, and some sexual references, but that seems standard these days. As to the suicide, it’s only mentioned that it happened. We don’t see it, we don’t know the circumstances, and the character, Connor, continues to reappear on stage as an incarnation of Evan’s thoughts. And it’s Connor’s suicide that is the driving force behind every character’s development and growth, and the overall messages are solid and uplifting. So, from tragedy comes growth.

Is it all a downer? Not at all. It has two very funny characters in the form of Evan’s sort-of high school friends, “Jared Kleinman” who sees everything as it relates to sex and “Alana Beck” who is a bit of a bossy pants and wants so much to be a joiner that she ends up joining her own club.  Both are hilarious and got a lot of knowing laughter from the somewhat younger than usual audience.

Photo by Matthew Murphy

So yes, I laughed, and I cried, particularly during Heidi’s song “So Big/So Small” which, I’m sure, will choke up any parent in the audience. And, I hope it comes back to Shea’s at some point because I’d see it again tomorrow if I could.

Here’s a tip: If you enjoy this musical and the character of Evan Hansen, I think you will like the charming Netflix series “Atypical” which also features a sympathetic character, a young man navigating high school who too has a bossy female friend and a male friend who constantly relates everything to sex.

Final thought: It’s no secret that we live in a more secular age and pollsters from Gallup to Pew to organized religion itself report that, except for evangelical churches, there has been a slow but steady decline in attendance at religious services. So where are people going to get the benefits and to hear the messages that they once got there? I submit that, as sacrilegious as it may sound, Broadway shows are fulfilling several roles once played by religion. Certainly, attendance in the theater, like attendance at a religious gathering, is a shared communal experience enhanced by music. But think about the recent shows you’ve attended. Let’s just take the recent Shea’s offerings of RENT, THE BOOK OF MORMON, and now DEAR EVAN HANSEN. What have the messages been? Goodwill towards others, being a Good Samaritan, following the Golden Rule, encouragement of ethical behavior and examples of the downside of non-ethical behavior, messages of strength during hard times, the performance of selfless service, acceptance of others, particularly those not like us, and, the big one – forgiveness.

I like the shows we’re seeing these days. Yes, the language and some of the content is not necessarily what you’d hear at a religious service, but the messages, the big takeaways, are exactly what we should be hearing these days.

Lead image: Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen and Jessica Phillips as Heidi Hansen | Photo by Matthew Murphy

UP NEXT: Second Generation Theatre offers NINE, directed by Victoria Pérez, at Shea’s Smith Theatre, from June 14 through the 30th.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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