Who knew that a sly musical package of social anxiety, suicide and lying could be so much fun?
A touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen” had its press opening Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. The 2015 musical is an infectious, clever charmer — despite the fact that its main character is an inveterate liar, the show doesn’t have a big showstopping number and the songs sort of peter out in the end.
This Broadway musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul has a light, guitar-strumming touch, with songs in happy major chords. (Austin Cook conducted the folk-inflected band.) These numbers brighten dark subject matter from loneliness (“Waving Through a Window”) to suicide (“Requiem”). Really, given the plot, it’s a testament to Pasek and Paul’s compositional talents, to director Michael Greif’s skill and to the artful cast that this Tony-winning show comes off as anything but a downer.
“Evan Hansen” is set in a world cluttered with social media, where people are connected yet acutely alone. (David Korins did the scenic design featuring large scrims and panels with social media projections designed by Peter Nigrini.)
With his arm in a cast, socially awkward Evan (played by Stephen Christopher Anthony) struggles through life with his hardworking single mom (the unflinching Jessica Phillips). He might talk with an auctioneer’s rapid-fire cadence, but he’s not necessarily bursting with confidence, especially in the presence of crush Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna).
In fact, a therapist counsels him to write letters to himself, designed to talk him into having good days. Another school loner, stoner and bully named Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) confiscates one of these letters from the printer and commits suicide with it in his pocket, leading to a misunderstanding.
Evan turns the situation into a cause célèbre and a way out of his social isolation.
Director Greif’s sly production taps into the moods and pressures roiling young people today. Actor Anthony was cast to play Evan for alternate shows. Expected to take over the lead role on tour in the fall, Anthony stepped in at the last minute Wednesday evening. He was flawless as Evan, not just in his singing and acting, but also in his quietness. This production is a chamber piece, inviting us to lean in to truly listen and hear.
Anthony is surrounded by regulars, including Jared Goldsmith’s wiseacre Jared, Ciara Alyse Harris’ invisible Alana and Smith’s Connor, a figure who is risibly brought back to life in letters. These characters are all grappling with challenges in a messy world. “Evan Hansen,” then, is a cry of pain as they seek to belong. Their quiet, interior struggles are relatable to everyone.