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A stunning “Dear Evan Hansen” plays Proctors

Stephen Christopher Anthony as 'Evan Hansen' and the North American touring company of DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Courtesy of Proctor's Theatre
Stephen Christopher Anthony as 'Evan Hansen' and the North American touring company of DEAR EVAN HANSEN

The plot of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which is at Proctors Theatre until Sunday, may best be summed up by the quote, “What tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.”

In this touching, heartrending musical a social anxiety suffering high school student, on the advice of his therapist, writes himself self-affirming letters. They are all addressed Dear Evan Hansen and signed “Me.” When the drug -addicted school bully, Connor Murphy, takes it from him and soon after commits suicide, the letter is discovered amongst Conner’s possessions. The assumption is that it was a suicide note written to Evan Hansen – which meant Evan was the only person who cared about Connor.

At first Evan’s lies are by omission. His purpose is to console the Murphy family. Soon he is reluctant to give up his new found popularity. The web he created becomes more tangled as Evan becomes actively engaged in perpetuating the myth of his friendship with Connor and he invents stories that make Connor seem a lonely, misunderstood youth. The deception also places him as a confidant to Connor’s sister Zoe, with whom he has a romantic crush.

Clearly, the work is filled with moral ambiguity. It is also fraught with angst that is difficult to make light of. Amazingly, book writer Steven Levenson keeps the story in balance finding tasteful humor jockeying a young man involved with drugs, suicide and bullying contrasted by another with a need for acceptance and self-worth. Almost magically, this very serious musical manages to entertain as well as provoke.

The music works the same way. The team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul incorporate beautiful music and sensitive lyrics which heighten the lovely moments that exist in almost every scene. Though the score consists of mostly ballads, the music is never dull and always adds depth to the characters and the story. Adding to pleasures of the score is a cast that is filled with great – actually remarkable – singing voices. An astoundingly good nine-piece orchestra conducted by Garret Healey is as marvelous as it is unobtrusive.

Nonetheless, even in a show with a thoughtful book, sensitive music and insightful lyrics the cast is the final arbiter of the success of the production. And this touring cast is great, and in my opinion better than the replacement cast I saw on Broadway.

Stephen Christopher Anthony is ideal as Evan Hansen. He has natural charm that, combined with tender vulnerability, makes you want to protect him. This is a critical factor because it is obvious that at some point Evan crosses the moral line between a lie of omission to a sin of commission.

Anthony does not sugar coat the young man’s deceptions; rather he helps the audience to understand why he behaves in such a manner. Indeed, he makes every person in the audience recall an action they took that might be less dramatic, but similar.

Indeed the entire cast finds the soul of their characters - who, in their own way, are misfits. Nikhil Saboo captures the isolation of Connor as well as his harshness. Stephanie La Rochelle is wary but warm as Zoe Murphy. Evan’s two friends, Jarad played by Alessandro Constananti and Alana played by Ciara Alyse Harris bring humor to many scenes.

But the body of emotion comes from the two mothers. Claire Rankin is touching as Connor’s mother, as she captures the need to believe in the way Evan invents her troubled son. As Evan’s overworked mother Heidi, Jessica E. Sherman projects the pain of a mother who is unable to provide a safe haven for her son. Her number “So Big/So Small” will impact every parent in the audience

As a bonus, the set design by David Korins is ideal for the story being told. The effective and constant digital projections in act one are perfect for a story about how social media, zoom and Instagram isolate people and give them permission to create a false image to the world.

In the second act the set becomes less busy, permitting some memorable stage pictures. Equal to the set is Japhy Weidman’s lighting design, which adds clarity and emotion to the entire two and a half hours of this poignant story.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is an enlightening, thoughtful look at topics we’d rather avoid. But it isn’t a sad or depressing experience. Indeed, there is not a character on stage that you will not recognize from your own life experiences.

Because of this, and for many other reasons, it is the perfect show to see with a younger member of your family.

“Dear Even Hansen” continues at Proctors in Schenectady through Sunday. For tickets and schedule information go to proctors.org or call 518- 346-6204. (On the Thursday and Saturday matinees the role of Evan Hansen will be played by Sam Primack or Jared Kleinman. Face masks must be worn inside the theater.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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