Dear Evan Hansen is a musical about a misunderstanding so bizarre it defies belief. The play hinges on the wording of a letter that winds up in the wrong hands and is then radically misinterpreted. While it would be wrong to say the plot could not unfold in real life, it would be shocking if it actually did.
That's not a criticism. Dear Evan Hansen, which comes to Portland as part of its North American tour and is directed by Michael Greif, uses an outlandish storyline as a window into the hearts and minds of its characters—most of whom are high school students. While the play features a few underdeveloped threads, it remains a tender tale of adolescent isolation that mostly lives up to the hype that erupted in the wake of its 2016 debut and the awards that came the following year: six Tonys and a Grammy.
Written by Steven Levenson and graced with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen follows the teenager in the title (Stephen Christopher Anthony) through his senior year. Evan suffers from social anxiety, and whenever he speaks, you feel as if the effort of communicating with another human being could kill him.
In a letter to himself—an assignment from his therapist—Evan confesses his affection for his classmate Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle). Just his luck, her brother, Connor (Noah Kieserman), reads it, pockets it and subsequently kills himself. When Connor's parents (Claire Rankin and John Hemphill) discover the letter, they assume Connor wrote it to Evan. Rather than clear up the mistake, Evan invents increasingly vivid tales of his supposed friendship with Connor. By writing and backdating fake emails with the help of his friend Jared (Alessandro Constantini), he creates a record of a bond that never existed.
The play's best song is "Sincerely, Me," during which Evan and Jared concoct the emails supposedly written by Connor, who appears onstage, cheerily spouting the words that the two boys are stuffing into his mouth. It's a haunting scene—there's something poignant about Evan and Jared projecting their fantasy of the ideal male friendship onto someone who is dead. What they're doing is wrong, of course, but it's driven by intense loneliness.
The scene also reveals one of the play's blind spots. Jared insists that everyone will assume Connor and Evan were involved romantically, a possibility the script defuses by intensifying Evan's relationship with Zoe. But what if Evan actually were attracted to Connor, or another boy? The play's unwillingness to contemplate that possibility isn't wrong, but it feeds the script's heteronormativity.
It is similarly frustrating that the play raises and then ignores unsettling questions about Connor. When Evan rhapsodizes about his "friend," Zoe responds by telling him Connor once threatened to kill her and tried to break into her bedroom. The play acknowledges the disjunction between who Connor was and who Evan imagines him to be, but it never fully investigates it, which creates the impression that the show's creators see Zoe's rage and pain as unimportant.
Yet there's no denying Dear Evan Hansen has endured partly because it understands something profound about being an American teenager in the 21st century. Throughout the play, we see projections designed by Peter Nigrini spread across multiple screens, most memorably words and phrases, like "take" and "deep breath," from Connor and Evan's bogus email exchanges. By the end, the screens fall away to reveal a blue sky that looks awfully inviting after so much fragmentation.
Which is why Dear Evan Hansen is as worth seeing as it is worth questioning. The play is honest about the sense of belonging that Evan's deception brings him, but what makes it moving is its insistence that to become whole, he must emerge from the digital heaven/hell of his own making and find his sky.
SEE IT: Dear Evan Hansen is at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., portland5.com. 7:30 pm Wednesday and Friday, 1 and 7:30 pm Thursday, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturday, through Feb. 8. $35-$175.