A buzzing crowd poured into TPAC’s Jackson Hall for the anticipated opening night of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Many theatergoers donned the show’s merchandise, demonstrating what an affectionate fan following the production has accumulated since its 2016 debut.
“Dear Evan Hansen” made a name for itself as a deeply moving, Oscar-sweeping contemporary musical that communicates sensitive topics with graceful urgency. Wednesday night continued this legacy, leaving the audience breathless and sniffling in the best way.
The show follows shy and socially awkward Evan Hansen, played by Stephen Christopher Anthony, as he starts his senior year of high school crippled by anxiety and depression as well as a broken arm.
Evan’s therapist recommends he write self-addressed pep talks to change his outlook on life. One ends up in the hands of lone-wolf Connor Murphy, who commits suicide only days after the exchange. When Connor’s family finds the letter, they mistakenly assume it was written by their son to Evan.
Evan doesn’t have the heart to tell the Murphys the truth, which ends up working in his favor. He gains a surrogate family and the chance to get closer to his dream girl, Connor’s sister Zoe. As the news of his and Connor’s friendship takes the world by storm, Evan becomes increasingly entangled in his own lies.
The stage is set in a digital landscape with panels projecting content like emails and social media pages in a constant stream. This combined with spotlight-heavy lighting carries the scenes, many of which feature the characters communicating digitally.
The setting seems to draw an unspoken connection between mental health and the pressures of the digital age, magnifying the musical’s themes and Evan’s inner world.
The jittery flutter of notifications seems to mimic Evan’s mind, and the artificialness exacerbates the crushing feeling of the false reality he has created for himself and others.
There is a physical stagnance to the show due to its virtual reality and heavy topics, so don’t come expecting a dance-busting sensation. However, the choreography that does exist is subtle and clever, suiting the story’s tone.
“Waving Through A Window” stands out as the most action-packed number, stirring the audience with its sensational singalong quality and staggering spotlights.
The scene also gives the audience their first taste of Anthony’s stunning, youthful voice, which oscillates between delicate and powerful. He effortlessly tightropes between a theatrical and contemporary sound, making him an uncanny match for the role.
Stephen Christopher Anthony (center) with castmates performing “Waving Through a Window.” Matthew Murphy.
The stellar soundtrack combines the power of Broadway with the listenability of commercial songwriting, making it hard to choose the best numbers. However, “Sincerely, Me” showcases a memorably playful dynamic between Evan, Connor and Jared — Evan’s sarcastic family friend and a tech wizard, portrayed by Alessandro Costantini.
Connor reappears as a manifestation of Evan’s mental chatter, a tactic that helps reveal shocking truths. Actor Nikhil Saboo faced the challenge of portraying the true Connor, Evan’s idea of Connor and Evan’s own inner voice.
Due to the role’s amorphous nature, Saboo never really receives the limelight, but he gave a solid performance. In “Disappear,” he and Anthony led the cast in a moving tribute to the lost and the lonely — the first major tear-jerker of the night.
Jessica E. Sherman played Evan’s mom, Heidi, on Wednesday night. Anyone not already silently weeping likely began during her rendition of “So Big / So Small,” a tender moment of healing between mother and son.
Sherman’s anguish throbbed like a raw, beating heart, and her chemistry with Anthony on stage soared.
The members of the Murphy family also did not disappoint. Stephanie La Rochelle’s portrayal of Zoe Murphy, particularly during “Requiem” and “Only Us,” left the audience wanting more, and John Hemphill’s portrayal of her distant father sparked gripping family tension.
But Evan, a lonely kid that doesn’t feel like a cheap or cookie-cutter geek, truly carries this show. And Anthony’s portrayal hit all the right notes, technically and emotionally, on Wednesday.
From the get-go, his nervous ticks, rambling efforts at conversation and softly muttered one-liners oozed a lovable shyness. And as the story progressed, so did the palpability of his character’s inner turmoil.
The audience feels torn between compassion and discomfort when it comes to Evan’s moral dilemma, but sympathy for him escalates as more light is shed on his struggles.
The complexity of Evan plays a huge part in making “Dear Evan Hansen” a musical that sticks to the heart. What could have been a sappy teen drama stands as an enriching emotional roller coaster that communicates intensely important messages.
The show speaks to anyone who struggles with their own mind or loves someone who does — to anxious teens, single moms and anyone out there grieving someone. But it also just speaks to anyone who has ever felt lost or lonely.
Like Evan conveys in the movingly melodious, uplifting ballad “You Will Be Found,” the reigning message seems to be that you can step “out of the shadows” and into the sun if you just “reach out your hand.”
In short, we all feel broken, sometimes, but we are not alone.
Stephen Christopher Anthony (center left) and castmates in “You Will Be Found.” Matthew Murphy.
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs at TPAC through Sunday.
Belmont students can apply the promo code “Bruins” prior to ticket selection to access a student discount.
“Dear Evan Hansen” was directed by Michael Greif. Book by Steven Levenson. Words and music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
CORRECTION: This story was updated to accurately state the day of the show and who played Heidi Hansen on March 2.
PHOTO: Stephen Christopher Anthony (left) as Evan Hansen in a scene set in the Murphys’ home. Matthew Murphy.
This review was written by Meagan Irby.