When Jewish playwright Steven Levensen’s musical “Dear Evan Hansen” premiered in Washington, D.C., in 2015, its cautionary tale of teenage social isolation resonated profoundly with its audiences.
Three years after pandemic-mandated seclusion, its message is even more poignant.
The show opened on Broadway in 2016 and took six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Theater lovers who have never seen “Dear Evan Hansen” should check out the touring production running through May 7 at the Benedum Center. Those who loved the show on Broadway — with Ben Platt in the lead — or on another tour, will want to see this production as well.
“Dear Evan Hansen” centers on a high school senior struggling with depression and anxiety, longing for friends but lacking the self-esteem to connect. As an assignment from his therapist, he writes a letter to himself on the first day of school to boost his confidence, but the letter ends up in the hands of another student, Connor Murphy, also struggling with emotional challenges.
When Connor commits suicide (which occurs off stage), his parents find the letter, which begins “Dear Evan Hansen,” and mistakenly believe Connor and Evan were friends. Evan embraces the misunderstanding. Fueled by social media and with the help of two other students who also are socially unskilled, he uses his faux friendship with Connor as a means to popularity.
The show is serious in its treatment of teenage angst, the dangers of a pervasive internet and the emotional toll on parents. Still, it manages to be upbeat in tone, with fun and moving musical numbers underscoring the characters’ longing and hopes. It’s a refreshingly honest, yet highly entertaining, glimpse of life as a teenager — and as a parent — in a complicated 21st century.
The cast of this touring production is stellar. Anthony Norman’s Evan remains likable and sympathetic, even as he perpetuates a lie for personal gain. His voice is superb, with an impressive range, and his renditions of “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will be Found” are worth the price of a ticket. August Emerson (Connor) is believable as a troubled teen who has given up on himself but plays the role with welcome humor when appropriate. Coleen Sexton as Heidi Hansen convincingly captures the heartbreak of a mother whose child is suffering and who doesn’t know how to make things better.
In the 10 years before the pandemic, persistent feelings of hopelessness, as well as suicidal thoughts and behavior, among teens increased by about 40%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, four out of 10 high school students in the U.S. experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Almost a quarter seriously considered suicide.
“Dear Evan Hansen” represents more than just a pleasant night at the theater. It offers a serious look at a crisis that demands our attention. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.