‘Dear Evan Hansen’ soars and sours at Overture

Madison premiere is a reminder that while the show’s songs pack power, the plot’s painfully problematic.
actor performing as Evan Hansen
Courtesy of Overture Center for the Arts

Trigger warning: suicide, teen death

“Dear Evan Hansen,” Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Tony-winning Broadway musical, remains as puzzling as it was when it first made everyone reach for Kleenex boxes back in 2016. The current touring Broadway production — making its first-ever stop in Madison at the Overture Center through Sunday — manages to show off both sides of its coin. The show’s songs soar with enough emotional power to blast through steel walls. And the show’s plot makes you feel uncomfortable as hell for enjoying them.

As the striped-shirt wearing star, Steven Christopher Anthony does a fantastic job of inhabiting the eccentricities and anxieties of the awkward loner — his tittering laugh, his tendencies to apologize for everything he says, etc. — and that’s important, because it’s the only way the show can build audience sympathy. Anthony’s vocal range, meanwhile, is spectacular, soaring higher than the trees his character’s prone to climbing in songs like “Waving Through a Window” and, towards the show’s end, “Words Fail.”

At school, Evan has a couple of brief confrontations with Connor (Nikhil Saboo), the rage-riddled brother of Zoe (Alaina Anderson), a girl he’s crushing on from afar. Connor’s on stage for three brief scenes before we learn that he took his own life. Thanks to a series of misunderstandings, Connor’s devastated parents (Kelsey Venter and John Hemphill) leap to embrace the idea that Connor and Evan were best pals — and then Evan leans into the lie and builds a narrative that gives him a chance to experience the love, popularity and sense of belonging he’s been missing.

Yup. The storyline is still just that problematic.

The show, which got a disastrous big-screen treatment in 2021, plays much better on the stage. The songs carry metric tons of power — there are at least four that pack enough oomph to wrench tears from a stone (not to mention a reviewer) — in particular “You Will Be Found,” a song that begins with Anthony’s vocals backed by a soft piano and crests with the entire ensemble. These are the moments where it’s easy to understand why the show remains so popular.

That said, parts of Tuesday’s performance were a little uneven. “Sincerely Me,” one of the show’s upbeat and funniest songs, starts a little flat before finally finding its footing at the end. Anderson, filling in as Zoe in Tuesday’s performance, missed her pitch on the final crescendo of “Requiem,” marring one of the most honest and moving songs in the first act.

The show’s social-media bent, meanwhile, has aged unevenly. “Dear Evan Hansen” collected its pile of Tony hardware back in 2017, when the idea of going viral was beginning to have its moment. The intervening years have changed the landscape significantly. The plot’s primary social-media driver is Facebook, a platform that no modern teen comes within ten miles of these days (TikTok and Instagram, anyone?). On the other hand, the notion of an online fabrication exploding and wrecking everyone’s lives, as “The Connor Project,” an online fundraising effort based off Connor’s suicide, does for Evan and his classmates, has become all too common.

With whirling spotlights, hovering screens and scrolling feeds flying by on scrims that frame the action, the staging does a deft job of evoking the social media tsunami Evan unleashed, and how ill-equipped he is to keep it all under control. The show’s modest orchestra fits in like a Tetris block, tucked tidily on a platform in the upper-right corner of the stage.

It’s possible to argue that a show like this bringing difficult topics like teen suicide and bullying into the light is worthwhile, but the manipulative and comedic and dismissive way in which they’re handed here undercuts that narrative at every turn. Your heart can soar and ache when the songs are being sung, but when the singing stops, your brain will require some serious mental gymnastics to overcome the ick factor of the plot.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is at Overture through Sunday.

Aaron R. Conklin is an award-winning theater writer for Madison Magazine.