The soaring, anthemic musical numbers and hyper-contemporary book of Dear Evan Hansen still feel relevant and powerful in the latest touring production to arrive in SF. But it's starting to show a little wear, seven years out from its initial run.
It's unsettling to realize that Dear Evan Hansen — a musical about teenage angst, loneliness, suicide, social media, and social anxiety that felt as fresh and stunningly vibrant as a new musical could be when it debuted on Broadway in 2016 — has now been kicking around for three quarters of a decade. A lot has shifted and changed, in the culture and the world, since Ben Platt earned his Tony and since the show first played to sold-out audiences — and even more has happened since the show was first conceived and workshopped nearly a full decade ago.
But it's always been a danger of creating something so tied to the zeitgeist — and to technology — that it can age quickly and begin to feel dated. And you can see that beginning to happen with Dear Evan Hansen, at least in some ways. Just as an example: One of the central plot points has to do with "secret" emails between Evan and the troubled loner Connor Murphy, and what teenager uses email anymore? There's plenty of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube worked into the show, with tweets and video images woven in to the largely projected set, but where is TikTok?
These may be nit-picky things, and for fans of the show and its glorious score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman), none of that likely matters.
Still, much has happened since 2016 that hovers over the show and its context. With the widely panned film version already out for two years — in which Platt, in a weird hairpiece, ill-advisedly reprised a role he had visibly aged out of — the Broadway production closed for six months, and the tour making its second visit to many cities, some of the freshness has faded. And that goes doubly for the many people already familiar with the show and its cast recording.
The latest San Francisco run at the Orpheum opened last week and the cast features several standout performers — including some stellar, rawly visceral acting by Anthony Norman as Evan, and a standout turn as Connor by August Emerson. The understudy for Zoe Murphy, Gillian Jackson Han, went on for press night and was also terrific. The production still has the quick pacing and forceful momentum as when it appeared at the Curran in late 2018. But it's hard not to pick out the kinks, especially some missed notes and pitchiness throughout.
For those who have only seen the film version, you may be surprised, in a good way, by the frenetic pace of the show, its gripping tension, and the songs that were cut like the mothers' opening number "Anybody Have a Map?" and the very powerful "Disappear," which serves as a pre-closer to Act I before the famous anthem of the show, "You Will Be Found." The film is contemplative and slow by comparison, quiet in all the moments that the stage musical feels quite loud.
The issues tackled in Steven Levenson's Tony-winning book of the musical remain as relevant as ever, of course, and teen isolation during the pandemic has only heightened that relevancy. It's rare to find a piece of musical theater that successfully mines dark issues like suicide and mental health, with realistic dialogue, while still delivering uplift and joy through its songs.
For those who never had the chance to see this show in its earlier runs, I still highly recommend it and this production will not disappoint. Just don't be surprised if you bring along a teenager and they point out that no one uses email or Twitter.
'Dear Evan Hansen' plays through February 19 at The Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. Find tickets through BroadwaySF.