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  • Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

At PPAC: Dear Evan Hansen is all heart

On opening night, audience members at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC) showed their love for Dear Evan Hansen with torrents of applause. The production deserves the enthusiastic outpouring it received.

With a premise that seems unique, the musical employs an ingenious device to tell the story of a high school student – Hansen (Stephen Christopher Anthony) who is so traumatized by a deep and painful sense of insecurity and social isolation that his therapist has him writing letters to himself. It is prescribed as a way to develop some objectivity and gain awareness of his potential.

Connor Murphy (Nikhil Saboo), a schoolmate he barely knows, is even more troubled. Drug use is leaving him profoundly depressed. Their one encounter is ominous and intimidating for Hansen, who later learns that Connor has committed suicide.

In his belligerent confrontation with Evan, Connor had swiped one of Evan’s letters to himself. Connor found the letter in a printer at the school computer lab. When after his death, his family learns of the letter, it is mistakenly perceived as a suicide note addressed to Hansen by Connor. When they become aware of it, they take comfort from it.

Beset with timidity and doubt, and extremely self-absorbed by his woeful lack of social skills, Evan, meekly and half-hearted, tries to explain that he wrote it. However, Connor’s parents are so eager to find something redeeming in the letter’s ambiguous message that he is unable to crush their hope.

Also, Evan is smitten by Connor’s sister Zoe (Stephanie LaRochelle), who he has fantasized about from afar, and he doesn’t want to upset her.

Evan’s parents are divorced. He lives reclusively with his mother, Heidi (Jessica E. Sherman). She is absent much of the time, working to keep their heads above water. When not at work she is going to school, studying to get a better job. Frequently, she seems on the brink of dissolving into anger or tears.

Lonely and almost totally lacking in self-confidence, Evan has but one friend, Jared Klienman (Alessandro Costantini). It turns out that Jared merely considers himself a “family friend,” and only associates with Evan because his parents won’t pay his car insurance if he doesn’t.

Yet, Jared sees the potential for embracing the misconception that Connor viewed Evan as sympathetic and a kindred spirit. Along with another school acquaintance, Alana Beck (Ciara Alyse Harris) he coordinates an effort to commemorate Connor’s life and passing. Together they set in motion a project to create a memorial for Connor so he will always be remembered.

Jared composes more letters ostensibly written by Evan and Connor to one another which can be used to flesh out the supposed friendship they shared. Evan becomes more at ease participating in the ruse. He helps the others to lead a campaign to make a memorial park of an abandoned orchard. Evan has encouraged everyone to believe it was a special place where he and Connor went to confide in each other and commune with the natural world.

Ironically, the tragedy of Connor’s suicide has inadvertently become the catalyst that sets in motion Evan’s emergence from his reclusive, self-imposed seclusion. At school he becomes a leader of sorts due to his role in the Connor project.

The Murphy family embraces him in their belief he was their son’s “best friend,” and he even gets his wish to become Zoe’s significant other. Larry and Cynthia, Connor and Zoe’s father and mother, almost treat him as a surrogate son. He has attained a niche in the world which had been an alien and threatening place for so long.

Inevitably, of course, the deception is eventually revealed. The counterfeit story unravels, and Evan, the newly confident even popular figure, is suddenly outed as a poseur, and a fake. He confesses to the Murphys, including Zoe, and is once more catapulted to the fringes with the possibility of fraud charges hanging over his head and the probability of ostracization looming.

The events drive him to a reconciliation with his mother, though, and after a time of healing a meet-up to make amends with Zoe.

We won’t dwell too long on the likelihood of the self-discovery lasting. After all the angst and agony and earned self-awareness, some enduring benefit of the doubt is earned.

Everything from the set – an ongoing shifting montage of computer e-mail screen shots and phone text message memes as backdrop – to domestic settings and school room props – to the everyday character-appropriate clothing seems right.

The songs are spot on for the moments they elevate and express. Of special note are “If I Could Tell Her” by Evan with Zoe, “You Will Be Found” by Evan and company at the finale of Act One, reprised in Act Two, and “Only Us” by Zoe and Evan. Also, delightful is “To Break in a Glove,” by Larry and Evan, a song about father-son bonding through the act of conditioning a new baseball glove.

All the performances and voices throughout the production are first class. Stephen Christopher Anthony as Evan has enormous range and perfect pitch. Stephanie LaRochelle as Zoe is sweet and rich. Jessica E. Sherman as Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mom, brings the right texture and soul to a difficult role. Likewise, Claire Rankin as Cynthia Murphy, the mother of Zoe and Connor, rings true.

John Hemphill as Larry Murphy and Stephen Christopher Anthony combine beautifully to make the baseball glove scene poignant and affecting. Alessandro Costantini is effective as Jared Kleinman. This show resonates on so many levels. It is pleasing and lingers in your consciousness.

With book by Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen is directed by Michael Greif. It is at PPAC through Sunday April 10.

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