‘Dear Evan Hansen’ on tour at KenCen: a poignant snapshot pre-TikTok

When it comes to technology and when it comes to musical theater, I don’t tend to be an “early adopter.” I’m not the first one to camp out to get the new-fangled iWhatever, and I’m not usually the first one to see a show before it becomes a hot ticket. However, I do tend to find myself in that second wave. After the early adopters know and love a show or a piece of technology, you better believe I’m in the second group to swear by AirPods or be among the first to see a show after it’s gone through an out-of-town tryout. However, somehow my typical show experience cadence didn’t happen with Dear Evan Hansen. I became familiar with the original Broadway recording five or six years ago, but I somehow missed it at Arena Stage (here in DC where it premiered), and I didn’t catch it on Broadway or its subsequent first national tour stop at the Kennedy Center back in 2019.

Anthony Norman as Evan Hansen in ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’

What I knew before going in: Evan Hansen is a high school kid with anxiety and no friends who passively gets wrapped up in a lie that ends up bringing him prestige, glory, and maybe a girlfriend. What I didn’t know was what the lie exactly was, if he gets the girl in the end, if he gets caught, and what the fallout is. I knew the cast was fairly small, the themes were at least moderately heavy, and the role of Evan was demanding.

Anthony Norman as Evan Hansen and Alaina Anderson as Zoe Murphy in the 2022-2023 North American Tour of ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

When I finally settled into my seat at the Eisenhower Theater on September 1, I was excited to see the rest of the story. Much of it did not disappoint. First, I have to highlight the staging and projections. I’m never going to be mad at a band being on stage. The eight-piece band elevated 12 or so feet off the ground upstage right brought energy to the production. The projections by Peter Nigrini were effective and dizzying from the outset, bringing the audience into a world overwhelmed by notifications, pings, and updates. The sensory overload is not quite on par with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, but it is close. The staging by director Michael Greif pairs perfectly with Steven Levenson’s book and the projections. It’s consistently clear when the performers are texting or sending DMs as opposed to having a face-to-face conversation. The scene changes are breezy and the music is driving.

As a former actor, I can’t help but look at performances and characters on stage and envision what it would be like to play a role. I’ll tell you one that seems utterly exhausting: Evan Hansen. Good thing Evan should be played by someone with the energy level of an 18-year-old. It is vocally, physically, and emotionally ten-out-of-ten demanding. Anthony Norman plays Evan five times a week delivering an endearingly awkward performance. In the first scene, he connected with the audience right away, giving us access to his inner monologue. By intermission, I was already feeling vicariously exhausted by going on this journey with Evan. I would be so game for a 90-minute version of Dear Evan Hansen, but two hours and 40 minutes on a Thursday night felt like too much. A trimmed-down version would be welcome.

Overall, the cast was lovely. Alaina Anderson, who played Zoe Murphy, in her first professional role, masters the art of stillness on stage. Nikhil Saboo who played Connor Murphy was captivating. My eyes were always glued on him when he appeared. His task is to play a ticking time bomb and to have musical theater comedy chops; he nails it. The energetic peak of the show was the “Sincerely Me” trio sung by a hilarious Pablo David Laucerica as Jared Kleinman, along with Evan and Connor.

Anthony Norman, John Hemphill, Lili Thomas, and Alaina Anderson in the 2022-2023 North American Tour of ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The challenge with the material of Dear Evan Hansen is that it is contemporary and seems almost like the present day, but it’s not current enough to feel true to 2022. There’s no mention of COVID and one of the parents in the show even references Facebook as if teenagers are on it (lol). The show was first produced in 2015 before TikTok was created, before kids went to school via their laptops for two years, and before a global pandemic accelerated our nation’s deep problems with teen anxiety, depression, and isolation. Some of Dear Evan Hansen’s world feels modern and accurate, and some of it feels cringingly out of touch. Eventually, it may feel like a poignant snapshot of Gen Z pre-COVID, but for now it just feels a little off.

The first half of the show is much stronger than the second. The songs and energy in Act 1 are excellent. Act 2 not only doesn’t deliver an ending that feels satisfying; the pacing slows.

Dear Evan Hansen is not the show to see if you’re looking for an evening of “fun musical theater” for a date night. But it’s very worth seeing as a conversation starter for parents and adolescents.

Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes, including intermission.

Dear Evan Hansen plays through September 25, 2022, in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($79–$199) are available in person at the Kennedy Center box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

The Dear Evan Hansen program is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking. Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.

Dear Evan Hansen’s company on tour includes Alaina Anderson, John Hemphill, Micaela Lamas, Pablo David Laucerica, Anthony Norman, Jeffrey Cornelius Connor, Nikhil Saboo, Coleen Sexton, and Lili Thomas.

Dear Evan Hansen is directed by Michael Greif with choreography by Danny Mefford, with a book by Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, scenic design by David Korins, projection design by Peter Nigrini, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, and sound design by Nevin Steinberg with music supervision, orchestrations, and additional arrangements by Alex Lacamoire.

SEE ALSO:
A Love Letter to ‘Dear Evan Hansen’  (John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column responding to the 2015 premiere at Arena Stage)
‘Dear Evan Hansen’ at Arena Stage (review of the 2015 premiere by Derek Mong)