In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"Dear Evan Hansen" runs at the Marcus Center through Sept. 29. (PHOTO: Matthew Murphy)

Marcus Center's "Dear Evan Hansen" wrings inspiration from an insidious plot

Earnest pleas for honesty don't come much more dishonest than "Dear Evan Hansen," the latest touring Broadway hit to take residence at the Marcus Center, a six-time Tony winner and the closest we'll likely get to "Upworthy: The Musical," insidious manipulation and exploitation – on the part of its creators and its lead character – packaged as inspiration. At one minute, you'll laugh. At seven minutes, you'll cringe – and you may not stop for the rest of the show.

That cynical clickbait approach to emotion is ironically one of the weepy musical's targets even before the first note is even sung. As the audience finds its seat, pillars of glowing tweets ping and scroll down projection screens scattered across the otherwise dark and minimalist stage and stay there throughout the show, the eye-catching glitched images serving as the show's backdrop – an omnipresent reminder of the pressures of a society always on, where life and death is mere content for the internet mill. That modern set, combined with the simple yet effective choreography, make for an intriguing aesthetic.

Steven Levenson's book is acutely tapped into the queasily overlapping Venn diagram of real life and digital life – it's the rare piece of entertainment about the internet that doesn't feel like it was eye-rollingly written by a 60-year-old who thinks TikTok is either a candy bar or a dangerous new drug cocktail – but its attempt to bring those issues into a real-world setting fall lethally flat.

You see, for its concerns about "viral" culture, "Dear Evan Hansen" is frustratingly shy about facing and truly confronting the show's true virus: Evan Hansen himself.

Played by Stephen Christopher Anthony as a full-body clench even tighter and constricted than the cast on his arm, the socially anxious loner discovers his golden ticket to a better life when, through a series of contorting plot gymnastics, Evan's therapeutic letter-writing exercise to himself is confused for a troubled classmate's suicide note to his only friend and confidante. And like any sane person, he … says it's all true and then some, tricking the mourning family with a friendship that never existed and using a dead teen as a ventriloquist doll for his own thoughts and dreams, going as far as to make a fake email account to concoct emails between himself and the victim.

In the process, he leeches onto a new mom and dad (Claire Rankin and John Hemphill) to replace his own overstressed divorcee mother (Jessica E. Sherman), fame both at school and over social media, and even a girlfriend: Zoe Murphy (Stephanie La Rochelle), the deceased's sister that Evan's been pining over from a safe and silent distance. But with his newly discovered access, he fills Zoe ears with his own observations and compliments while role-playing her suicidal sibling, cooing compliments and "I love you" in the victim's voice before trying to kiss her on her dead brother's bed – a move that remarkably works, eventually scoring Evan a squirm-inducing kiss before intermission and match made in creepy gaslit heaven after.

And that's just the first act, before Evan loses what little sense of rational and moral center and really goes full selfish sociopath.

It sounds like the premise of a horror movie or, at best, a pitch-black morally murky comedy walking a tricky tightrope. (In fact, the plot's rather similar to Bobcat Goldthwait's 2009 film "World's Greatest Dad," another story of a character using a suicide victim as a stepping stone.) "Dear Evan Hansen," however, goes in a different direction, happily side-stepping any of the moral or emotional quandaries in favor of trite and often queasy mistaken identity comedy – the reveal of the brother's suicide in particular is an uneasily cock-eyed tonal nightmare, shifting almost immediately from tragedy to giggles – and then eventually heart-tugging inspiration, complete with the hashtag-approved anthem "You Will Be Found."

Never mind that the victim's real life is being buried by Evan's forged fictions, the tears apparently worth the characters trampled to get them.

The second act attempts to challenge Evan more as he digs himself further into his own grave – but even then, other than some disappointed tut-tutting, the musical essentially lets his off-putting parasitic behavior off the hook and does its best to apologize for him. "Dear Evan Hansen" is more than happy to remember his selfish deceptions and manipulations for the good they did rather than the damage, leaving the true fallout off the stage and his victims silent.

Can't let some little thing like too much conscience get in the way of some pop-rock feels. (It shouldn't surprise the audience that the enjoyable if forgettably interchangeable music and lyrics come courtesy of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo who helped turn P.T. Barnum from an exploitative huckster to an all-American champion of the downtrodden and different in "The Greatest Showman.")

Stephen Christopher Anthony does his admirable best with the titular role, making the comedic most of his mumbling, motor-mouthed awkwardness as well as some funny and thoughtful physical work, scoring a laugh merely bending himself into a chair or loosening his stance and singing voice as he gets more comfortable sliding into his dead fake friend's skin.

As the end of that last sentence implies, however, considering the show's feel-good tone and approach to the material, it's an almost impossible role – one that already starts off early as a creepy and despicable, despite the musical's Febreezing of his failings, so by the time he begins his true ugly fall from grace, redemption seems like a tough ask from the audience.

Even without that, though, Evan's a vaguely conceived character, one that hints at his own complicated struggles with mental health and class angst but instead backs nervously away, leaving him ill-defined and making him less of a character and more of Teen Sheldon from "Big Bang Theory" – all tics and no depth. It didn't help that during Tuesday night's performance, during a significant scene discussing how Evan may have actually broke his arm, the dead brother's microphone failed to flick on, leaving much of the conversation and any of its revelations lost.

Perhaps Evan's greatest problem, though, is that he's surrounded almost entirely by infinitely more interesting and thoughtful characters – especially Jessica E. Sherman's wearying and wearied mother, who easily gets the show's most affecting moments. She painfully howls out the wounded anger of discovering the most important person in her life has replaced her in the riled-up second act roar "Good for You" followed by "So Big/So Small," a heartbroken and devastated ballad as she realizes the scope and depth of what she's been missing in Evan's life. They're the two scenes in which "Dear Evan Hansen" hits its tear-jerking aims.

Hemphill and Rankin bring genuine heart and feeling to their roles as the healing Murphy parents – the song "Requiem," sung by the coping family, is one of the few first act moments that rings true – while La Rochelle brings soul, charm and wit to Zoe even as the story slowly pushes her into a fantasy romance character for Evan who never once contemplates dating her dead brother's secret friend. Seems like a complicated relationship and emotional state a good show would want to tangle with and unpack.

Alas, they are all mere moons that revolve around the noxious planet Evan Hansen, battling a contrived chain of events and forced mistaken identity comedy while they all cope with real emotions, pains and complexities.

It's a shame because "Dear Evan Hansen" has its heart in the right place – and it sticks the ending about as well as it could, an all-too apologetic but kind-hearted and well-intended empathetic conclusion that makes the show both easier and harder to swallow. But for a show that decries opportunistic fake feeling and emotional manipulation on the internet, its storytelling and inspirational aspirations plays as real and authentic as a Nigerian prince email scam. Evan Hansen himself couldn't have written it any better.


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