Theater

Hope resonates in Dear Evan Hansen

Stephen Christopher Anthony as ‘Evan Hansen’ and the North American touring company of DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2019

Teen angst – heck, angst in general – has never felt as raw and overwhelming as in the first act of the Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen.

On stage at the Providence Performing Arts Center – two years after it was rescheduled due to the pandemic – the production is a magical blend of the pain of being sidelined by life, the fear of being rejected yet again and the power and infectiousness of hope.

After a slow start as a pair of mothers muse about the frustrations of raising teenagers, Dear Evan Hansen takes off when the focus shifts to the teens themselves. Evan is something of a social misfit whose counselor suggests he take control of his fears by writing empowering letters to himself each day.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” the letters begin, “this is going to be a good day and this is why…”

Connor, a troubled classmate, reads one of the letters and misconstrues parts about his sister, Zoe. After Connor commits suicide, his parents find the letter folded in his pocket and assume he was writing it to his “friend” Evan Hansen. They contact Evan, who tries to explain the origin of the letter, but eventually gives in to the deception. He grows close with the family, Zoe and other classmates who work with him to establish The Connor Project to rebuild an orchard where he said he and Connor would hang out.

While this could be one extended version of a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon tween movie, Dear Evan Hansen is heart-wrenching and heart-warming for all ages. Sure, it’s easy to identify with as a struggling, insecure teen, but it’s equally easy to feel the pain of the parent of a teen who questions every decision and worries about expressions, comments and arguments.

Everything supports that rush of emotions – the poignant lyrics that unfold like letters read aloud, the stage with towering screens featuring rolling social media feeds, and the sparseness of the staging which drives the entire focus of the audience onto the cast.

That focus is well rewarded with outstanding performances. Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan is a treat from beginning to end. He delivers his first monologue rapid-fire as the character’s teen brain teems with anxiety and rushing thoughts. Later in songs like “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found,” he has incredible control over his voice, sweeping from falsetto words to power choruses smoothly.

Equally powerful is the voice of Nikhil Saboo as Connor, especially in dream scenes when the character returns to chat with Evan. Together – while the dance moves are somewhat goofy – Saboo and Anthony’s voices find this sweet harmony that is lush and comforting. Dear Evan Hansen is a contemporary look at the schism that often occurs between what we hope for and what we get, and how “You Will Be Found” in the end. The show runs through April 10 at PPAC, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. For ticket information, go to www.ppacri.org.

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