Anyone who says they never got caught telling a fib is probably telling a fib. But what is worse is covering the tracks of the first lie with another, and then another, until the wheels finally come off. Often, the result is loss of respect from others, compounded by loss of self-respect. If there is a road back, it is an arduous one.
“Dear Evan Hansen” opens with a dramatically dark cacophony of moving electronic images and sounds associated with messaging and social networks. Terminally timid and insecure, Evan lacks friends, and what little release from his fears of humanity comes through his laptop. A senior in high school whose divorced mother has put him in therapy, he receives an assignment to write letters to himself intended to boost his self-esteem. One such letter falls into the wrong hands and is subsequently misinterpreted. So begins Evan’s descent down the rabbit hole.
This set up may seem like a dreary appetizer to a dreadful meal, but the multiple Tony award-winning Broadway production ran 1,678 performances before succumbing to the effects of the pandemic hiatus and a poorly reviewed film adaption. So, what’s behind its success? Although the overarching issues are serious, if not depressing, plenty of comic relief, appealing music, and hope yield a great balance of entertainment and meaningfulness.
Evan’s deception, which dominates the plotline, occurs by accident, not by design, so it’s not that he’s like Donald Trump or Congressman George Santos who strategically create successful identities based on a web of lies. For Evan to deal with the triggering incident truthfully would be an embarrassment that he doesn’t have the constitution to deal with. So we sympathize with him because of his inadequacies and his circumstances. It doesn’t hurt that the talented Anthony Norman portrays the dorky character with great sensitivity or that creative elements of the show lift the proceedings.
Further bad judgments and misadventures lead Evan to ally with two more losers in his class to form a project memorializing Connor, a fellow student who has committed suicide. Along with a successful crowdfunding campaign to revitalize an apple orchard in honor of the deceased, the project is commercialized with tribute sweatshirts and buttons, but with the knowledge that fast action is required, as society will quickly move on to another focus.
These sequences offer many funny moments but caution about the power of electronic communication and the ease of deceiving the public. They also suggest how the departed can become idealized, as well as how they can bring people together and come to represent something far greater than themselves. Sustaining that image often becomes more important than facing newer truths that may not jive with the myth. Regrettably, this inclination also occurs at societal levels where whole countries are unable to learn and grow because of being wed to falsehoods they fail to address. At least in this show, Evan acknowledges “All I ever do is run from the truth” and finally appears ready to face consequences.
Meanwhile, another plot turn that enlivens the action is the love interest. Evan has had a crush on Zoe, who didn’t know he existed. But she happened to be the sister of the deceased, and Evan’s involvement with the Connor Project puts him into contact with her. In a grass-is-greener move, Evan even insinuates himself into the lives of Connor’s rich but dysfunctional family. His presence becomes a source for positivity for them, and they encourage him to continue the project, even though their relationship with Connor was fractious.
Each and every character in the play is flawed, making them all very real. It’s easy to dwell on their deficiencies, but we want them to overcome their weaknesses and have happy lives in their families and communities, and to some measure, they do. Perhaps tragic circumstances and even ill-guided actions often have positive consequences. This is suggested by the show’s optimistic message delivered with one of its fine songs of hope, “You Will Be Found.”
“Dear Evan Hansen,” with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul and book by Steven Levenson, is presented by Broadway SF, and appears at Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco, CA through February 19, 2023.