Dear Evan Hansen, your show is one complicated piece, and here’s why: there’s so much to love and so much to cringe at. I want to love you. I want you to live up to the accolades you were awarded, but there’s too much in the way of the fun score and talented performances in the currently touring cast to make me become the fan of you I want to be and that you so desperately want me to be.
You see, the thing is, Evan, you know how to get me, emotionally, where you want me to be, even if I fight it. When Larry Murphy, played by a properly stoic John Hemphill, has his moment of well-earned vulnerability in the first act’s finale, “You Will Be Found,” it got me. I had tears that you wanted me to shed, so thank you for that. When Hemphill bonds with Anthony Norman’s outstanding Evan in “To Break in a Glove,” there is honesty in the dialogue-duet, an honesty that seldom pops up in the entirety of the show. I want a completely honest show, but Steven Levenson’s problematic book doesn’t allow for that as he attempts to evoke sympathy for your journey without much work done to earn it.
Evan, I get it. You want to be seen. But so early in the musical you’re established as an unreliable narrator, a clear-cut choice Levenson and composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul thought would best serve the character and story, but it doesn’t. With such a committed cast, including standout performances by Alaina Anderson as Zoe Murphy, Pablo David Lauceria as the hilariously snarky Jared, and understudy for Heidi Hansen, Kelsey Venter--who nails her scene work throughout the show and, with pinpoint nuance, belt, and emotion blows her 11 0’clock number, “So Big/So Small” out of the water--the flaws of the story are as glaring as the inconsistencies found in Evan’s backdated emails about his “friendship” with Connor. Oh, August Emerson delivers his Connor with a dark allure and is fantastic in dramatic and bouncy turns, especially in the upbeat, “Sincerely, Me” alongside Norman and Laurceria, so at least there’s that.
Evan, your big act one song, “Waving Through a Window,” is more of an ‘I Am’ song as opposed to the often slated ‘I Want’ song. Even the mothers get an ‘I Want’ song to kick off the show in “Anybody Have a Map?” We know you want to be seen, we know you have a crush, and we know navigating social paths are difficult for you. But even though Norman delivers a superb vocal performance in “Waving Through a Window” it’s not until the act two admission, “Words Fail,” where we get an ‘I Want-ed’ song, which is far too late for us to root for you. Norman and Anderson emote their all in “Only Us,” giving us relief from the massively ill-advised Connor Project, which is mainly spearheaded by a hyperbolic-world living Alana Beck, played with as much teenage self-serving justification one can muster by understudy Gillian Jackin Han. The issue with it, Evan, is that the most realistically written high school characters are Alana and Jared, but the former latches on to the Connor story out of desire not to be invisible anymore and latter brings his tech expertise in for some money and to have his car insurance paid for. Evan, you’re the one who makes the chaos. You’re the one who tells off your single mom, who’s working hard and taking night classes, that she’s not giving you enough. As someone who was raised by divorced parents, there is nothing in Heidi’s journey that earns her the reception of such ridicule.
Evan, your portrayal by Norman has many enjoyable parts, like the comedic-flirtatious storytelling in “If I Could Tell Her,” and it’s obvious why Evan would be so attracted to becoming part of the Murphy family, as Hemphill, Anderson, and Lili Thomas, who delivers an outstanding Cynthia Murphy, nail their respective forms of grief and processing of Connor’s decision in a stirring trio performance of “Requiem.” But, Evan, it’s the very graciousness shown by the Murphy family, which lets you get away with your deceit, that makes your arc incredibly problematic.
Evan, the tech doesn’t help the story either. The sub-plot between mothers Heidi and Cynthia relies on the financial statuses being indicative of the different versions of struggles families can endure. However, your scenic designer David Korins, along with Peter Nigrini’s projections, have busied the stage with panels filled with social media threads, images, and type. It distracts from the moments where audience connection would help get us closer to being on your side among the lies. At the expense of ensuring we always know that social media is part of the journey, we lose massive amounts of possible intimacy and insight to your journey.
The situations in this show, when the primary plot is in play, are a 99/100 chance of never happening, and your show demands the audience to suspend our disbelief by asking us to live in that 1/100 space where all these circumstances could happen. But this isn’t the Golden Age of Broadway, my dear friend; we’re not looking for escapism or spectacle. We’re not waiting for Anna to raise her dress and dance with the King of Siam; we’re not anticipating Dolly to walk down the staircase as if she invented stairs; and we’re not waiting for a hard-nosed billionaire to adopt a redheaded orphan child; we’re in the modern-era, where high schoolers don’t always live in hyperbole, where lies have consequences, and when morality takes over sooner than later because when social media is a primary character, as it is in your story, lies and deceit can only go so far, and you take it too far for too long. If it were today, you’d get a swift kick into being cancelled.
Dear Evan Hansen, I’m glad for the messages of hope, promise, forgiveness, and acceptance in your book and lyrics, because those are important. Those are messages high schoolers need to hear, messages that grieving families need to hear. Transparency: I have never personally dealt with depression, severe anxiety, nor thoughts of suicide, and I acknowledge that is a privilege and a blessing. So I stop here, because that’s a 5th wall blocking me from experiencing the transformative power your story can have and has had on others. I wish you a very good tour and beyond, because the audience members who can see past the lies, the inconsistencies, and ignorance in experiences like me, will be able to fully enjoy your stellar cast under intelligent direction by Michael Greif. Maybe those audience members can take with them the hope of being found, as your anthem song encourages.