Broadway’s most endearing coming-of-age story has once again made it to the Bay Area. The six-time Tony Award-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen” (2015) tells the tale of a high school student named — you guessed it — Evan Hansen (Anthony Norman). Profoundly earnest yet riddled with self-doubt, the insecure protagonist professes in a letter written to himself, “I wish everything was different. I wish I was part of something. I wish anything I said mattered to anyone.”
Despite his persistent yearning for camaraderie, Evan struggles to make friends. With an absent father and an overworked single mother, abandonment is around every corner. The audience winces as each of the recluse’s attempts to connect are met with painful rejection.
Early on in the musical, one of Evan’s bullies, Connor Murphy (August Emerson), dies by committing suicide. Through a series of hapless misunderstandings, the victim’s parents are led to believe that Evan was close friends with their son. Afraid of disappointing the mourning couple, the timid protagonist plays into the falsehood, thus igniting a disastrous cascade of unintended consequences.
Anthony Norman’s portrayal of Evan Hansen takes a sharp yet refreshing deviation from earlier interpretations of the role. Unlike the introverted, sympathetic performances of Ben Platt and Ben Levi Ross, Norman embellishes his character with cringeworthy mannerisms, stifling his nerves into the pockets of bizarre, clumsy interactions.
To put it bluntly, Norman’s Evan Hansen is awkward — legitimately and painstakingly awkward. He is simultaneously a nervous laugher and a boisterous snorter. Each time Norman blurts out one of these unorthodox oinks, his character’s embarrassment radiates all the way to the mezzanine. It is gauche; it is graceless; but it is moving. It is an honest portrait of a typical unconfident adolescent — one of the most authentic depictions of high school social anxiety to ever take the stage.
But perhaps Norman’s most tactful act of genius rests in the palms of his clammy hands — literally. As Norman swiftly oscillates between belts of powerful vibrato and bits of slapstick humor, his shaky hands remain glued to his sides. Norman anxiously tugs at the bottom of his shirt the way we all do before an important presentation or a big game. The only difference is that Norman does so even when his character is faced with the most menial, non-confrontational interchanges. Bold yet intimate, this artistic choice brilliantly indicates Evan Hansen’s constant state of fear to the audience.
Like a speck of mold that gradually envelops a loaf of stale bread, Evan’s little white lie expands and intensifies throughout the course of the musical. With the help of family friend and fellow high school dork Jared Kleinman (Pablo David Laucerica), Evan crafts several intricate backstories to bolster his fake friendship with Connor, placing the duo at the center of a widespread suicide prevention movement.
Surrounded by front-page news stories and viral social media posts, the once-ignored Evan Hansen becomes the national spokesperson for a stranger’s suicide. The whole fiasco embodies a dark interpretation of the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for.” But as the spotlight shines on Norman’s tearful cheeks, it is impossible for the audience to feel anything but sorrow for the precious, misguided Evan Hansen.
It’s the little things that mark the distinction between the performance and the embodiment of a character. It’s the imperfectly human subtleties that allow the stage to give birth to something real. With masterful command over these personal nuances, author Steve Levenson, composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and the 2023 touring cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” bring the audience to tears on several occasions.
Society tells us that we shouldn’t like liars — that deceit is the biggest social sin. But when these liars’ palms are sweaty and hearts are pure, perhaps we ought to give them a second chance. Hopeful, heartwarming and wholly compassionate, “Dear Evan Hansen” reminds us to not only forgive each other for the occasional faux pas, but to forgive ourselves for thinking we don’t matter.