Perhaps one sign of a great “book” of a musical—i.e. the spoken-dialogue parts of the script—is that it works just as effectively if you remove all the songs. While no one would ask for such a surgical intervention on “Dear Evan Hansen,” the praise certainly applies. There were many moments in its current Broadway tour at the Kravis Center when I was so enraptured by the aching, searing, soul-bearing emotion exchanged in the play-like scenes that I forgot I was watching a musical. This may, in fact, be the best book of a musical I’ve ever experienced.
I’m admittedly late to the party when it comes to “Dear Evan Hansen,” the winner of six Tony Awards in 2017, a show that’s already toured much of the country and been adapted into a major motion picture. Given the poor reception of the 2021 film adaptation—all of 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—I’m glad I held out for its Kravis Center theatrical debut, enduring all of these months of COVID postponements for a show that feels every bit as vital at the precipice of 2022 than it must have in its first workshop production in 2015.
The plot pivots on one of those consequential misinterpretations familiar to the mechanics of lighter, more comedic musicals. The title character (Stephen Christopher Anthony, who wins you over from the first second), a high schooler struggling with a social anxiety disorder, heeds his therapist’s advice to write daily letters to himself in which he reveals his innermost feelings. One such letter winds up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Nikhil Saboo), a troubled fellow-student with a pattern of drug abuse. When Connor takes his own life shortly thereafter, his parents find Evan’s self-directed missive—beginning, as they all do, “Dear Evan Hansen”—among their son’s belongings, and take it to be a suicide note written to, evidently, the only boy in school with whom he felt he could confide.
Evan, seeing a family in distraught over the loss of their child, decides to play along, inventing a posthumous “secret” friendship with Connor, completed with elaborate backdated email correspondence. That Evan also happens to infatuated with Connor’s sister Zoe (Stephanie Le Rochelle), and that playing the part of Connor’s intimate confidant draws him closer to her, only leads Evan to extend the fiction even further, from the halls of his school to the vastness of internet virality, with impacts equally healing and shattering and, above all, transformative.
Extraordinarily cast, and directed with sharpness and authenticity by Michael Grief, this tour delivers the sort of lighting in a bottle every production hopes for, in the form of humor and pathos, soaring songs and engrossing dialogue, a dexterous orchestra and an innovative scenic design. The latter, by David Korins, offers a vision of endless social media scrolls projected behind the action, a presentation reflecting the overwhelming ubiquity of this technology in the characters’ lives and in the propulsion of the story.
Mostly, though, I keep going back to Steven Levenson’s book, which, in the hands of actors fully in sync with his vision, captures three-dimensional characters with a naked vulnerability that’s still unusual in a medium rooted in crowd-pleasing and surface-skimming. Grief, anxiety, depression, deep-seated insecurity and social disconnection are not easy themes to convey in the relatively limited time of a two-and-a-half-hour narrative arc, but Levenson’s book has the richness of a novel.
Everybody in “Dear Evan Hansen,” certainly not just Evan and Connor, qualifies as a misfit in his or her own way. These are flawed people trying to navigate a tough and often cruel world as best they can, with choices that aren’t always optimal. All are worthy of our compassion, our forgiveness, our redemption. “Dear Evan Hansen” is about finding value in everyone, especially those that don’t see it in themselves. I can’t think of a better message to take home and cherish.
“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through Sunday at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets run $56-$121. Attendees must show proof of full vaccination or proof of a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours. Rapid testing is available on site. Call 561/832-7469 or visit kravis.org.
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