arts entertainmentPerforming Arts

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ deftly projects teen anxieties in the social media age in its Dallas tour stop

The Tony Award-winning musical’s stellar cast draws whoops of affection between emo-style tunes.

In telling the story of a lonely teenager whose big lie transforms him into an online celebrity, upping his status at school and in his own mind, Dear Evan Hansen has become the first high-profile musical to physically embody the social media age right on stage.

It’s a natural fit that’s perfectly realized in the national touring production of the Tony-winning Broadway hit that opened Tuesday at the Music Hall at Fair Park, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals.

Giant overlapping screens float behind the actors, displaying abstracted news feeds and social media posts. In tracing Evan’s journey from outcast to hero to the aftermath of being found out, they amplify what going viral looks like without distracting from the larger human narrative.

Stephen Christopher Anthony (left) stars as the title character, a teen whose big lie goes viral, in the national touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical "Dear Evan Hansen."
Stephen Christopher Anthony (left) stars as the title character, a teen whose big lie goes viral, in the national touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical "Dear Evan Hansen."(Matthew Murphy)

In fact, the other storytelling elements stand on their own, starting with the well-conceived plot and powerful performances by Stephen Christopher Anthony as the title character and Jessica E. Sherman as his mother, Heidi Hansen. The emo-style tunes are also so offhandedly catchy that Ed Sheeran must wish he wrote them. Audience members often expressed their affection between songs with whoops usually reserved for rock concerts.

That takes nothing away from designer Peter Nigrini’s projections. They’re in your face when it serves the story and recede into the background when the focus shifts to the musical’s best moments: the intimate, sometimes sung conversations, usually between just two characters. At the end, the projections disappear altogether, reminding us of what’s really important.

Stephen Christopher Anthony plays Evan Hansen, and Jessica E. Sherman portrays his mother, Heidi, in "Dear Evan Hansen," presented by Dallas Summer Musicals.
Stephen Christopher Anthony plays Evan Hansen, and Jessica E. Sherman portrays his mother, Heidi, in "Dear Evan Hansen," presented by Dallas Summer Musicals.(Matthew Murphy)

When we first meet Evan, he’s broken his arm falling out of a tree. Only one kid signs his cast, Connor Murphy (Noah Kieserman), a bad boy he barely knows who’s about to kill himself.

Through a misunderstanding, Connor’s parents come to believe they were best friends. They’re confused by a pep-talk letter that Evan has written to himself on the advice of his therapist that’s also the source of the musical’s title.

Evan can’t resist going with the lie and making up as many as necessary to get him in the Murphys’ good graces, including with Connor’s sister, Zoe (Stephanie La Rochelle), a romantic interest he hasn’t had the guts to pursue.

Against a projected social media backdrop, Stephen Christopher Anthony, center, stars as the title character in the national touring production of "Dear Evan Hansen."
Against a projected social media backdrop, Stephen Christopher Anthony, center, stars as the title character in the national touring production of "Dear Evan Hansen."(Matthew Murphy)

He receives plenty of assistance from two classmates (Alessandro Costantini and Samantha Williams), one of whom helps him manufacture the deception. The other sees it as an opportunity to build her own social standing.

The North American touring company of "Dear Evan Hansen."

Along with the portrayal of the socially anxious Evan, and the deft design, these characterizations establish what it means to be an adolescent in a world where everything is public.

The songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are extremely melodic while also giving the performers a chance to display their vocal chops. Anthony’s rangy voice is a pleasure to listen to, and as Evan he doesn’t just sing the lyrics, he acts them out.

Stephen Christopher Anthony as the title character in "Dear Evan Hansen."
Stephen Christopher Anthony as the title character in "Dear Evan Hansen."(Matthew Murphy)

“When you're falling in a forest and there's nobody around,” he asks, “do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?”

Sherman, who carries a lot of the emotional weight of Dear Evan Hansen, can belt out a tune with the best of them. Heidi is the put-upon single mom who’s also struggling financially. Part of the Murphys’ appeal to Evan is that they are well-off, which becomes a source of tension.

Claire Rankin (left) and Jessica E. Sherman in the national touring production of the Tony-winning musical "Dear Evan Hansen."
Claire Rankin (left) and Jessica E. Sherman in the national touring production of the Tony-winning musical "Dear Evan Hansen."(Matthew Murphy)

An early scene between the moms, both dealing with difficult children, is a highlight.

Dear Evan Hansen is ultimately satisfying not because its state-of-the-art design seems relevant but because it tells a tender story that transcends any particular age.

Details

Through Dec. 8 at the Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 1st Ave., Dallas. $45-$325. 800-982-2787. dallassummermusicals.org.

Manuel Mendoza, Special Contributor. Manuel Mendoza is a freelance writer and a former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News.

artslife@dallasnews.com

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