As the music fades and the lights rise, the last lyrics of Dear Evan Hansen linger. Can you look up, stop tapping and see the sky, for forever?
Dear Evan Hansen, the Tony Award-winning musical, might be known to some as the poster of a high school senior with a broken arm. While that visual might be the reference point, the underlying story is a reminder to the young, old and everyone that finding yourself is a universal struggle.
Currently, the National Tour of Dear Evan Hansen has stopped at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando, Florida. On opening night, a quick glance around the theater brought the show’s themes from story to reality. As the social media feeds scrolled on stage, audience members scrolled through their devices, took photos and continually tapped away until the music came to life.
In some ways, that constant tapping diversion is symbolic of today’s society. As the opening number conveys mothers’ struggles with finding balance with family life, that map metaphor in “Anybody Have a Map?” is instantly relatable. From being overwhelmed to the fear of helplessness, the emotional weight of just living can be almost unbearable.
As the musical transitions into one of its most iconic songs, “Waving Through a Window,” the notes of the piano mimic the anxiety building up inside Evan, played by Ben Levi Ross. Ross captures the delicate balance of a young boy trapped by anxiety’s hold, yet yearning for that moment of calm, acceptance and commonality. It is a constant struggle of wanting, yet fear can quickly take it all away.
Looking at this song, there are several old phrases that take on a new light. Who doesn’t know the idea of a “tree falling in the forest” or not being seen through the glass? But, as our world changes, those phrases evolve. What about the social media post that receives no likes or the heartfelt request that goes unanswered? Both “falls” went unnoticed, the impact is just as severe, and a little bit of “you” was lost, again.The Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy. 2018.
While the majority of audiences know the Dear Evan Hansen storyline, the difficult subjects and raw emotions move the audience. Of course, subjects like teen suicide, anxiety, desire to fit in and family dynamics are difficult subjects to handle and handle well. With a witty line or a tongue in cheek remark, those moments of levity break the tension yet also serve a sense of realism.
As seen throughout this musical, not every day is “sunshine and rainbows” nor is every day filled with clouds and despair. That constant pendulum swinging back and forth doesn’t provide a comforting pattern, rather it feels like waiting for the next swipe to take over.
While this sentiment invades the everyday, the musical encourages the audience to embrace the moment, sweaty hands and all. What if Evan had talked to Zoe, what if Evan’s mom hadn’t gone to work, and what if people looked up and around instead of constantly tapping on the glass?
When Evan starts his speech towards the end of Act 1, his words are relatable to almost anyone. These quiet moments, sung with such care by Ross, cut deeper than any rousing final note. Life is filled with disappointments, hardships and despair. In that commonality, people can find strength to persevere.
Like the song “You Will Be Found,” that phrase and sentiment flows throughout the musical. The found takes on many forms. Although the “found” is different for every person, that moment of clarity can be the ray of sunshine that keeps the swinging pendulum in the positive.
Since Dear Evan Hansen has struck such a chord with audiences, the national tour offers a special experience at each stop. A photo mosaic artwork in this case, located in the lobby of Dr. Phillips Center and outside the theater, shows thousands of “found” people. These photos are real and were submitted by fans. If the tour is stopping in your city, you can submit your photo via the musical’s website.
This mosaic, like the musical itself, stands as a reminder that life’s struggles are not meant to be suffered alone. Whether it is a face that looks like yours, someone you remember from high school or even your own son, being just you is the most important part of life.
Still, that “just being you” needs be built in truth. Throughout the musical, Evan struggles with pleasing others, fabricating stories and keeping their house of cards from falling down. He tends to forget the part of just being you.
As Evan drives the show, his mom, Heidi Hansen, played by Jessica Phillips, can sometimes be overlooked. Phillips brilliantly captures the sentiment that sometimes moms aren’t written into that narrative. She yearns for her son to have his best life at the sacrifice of her own.Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy. 2018.
In her final song, “So Big/So Small,” the conviction that she puts into the words “mom isn’t going away” is a heartfelt reminder that sacrifices for others’ happiness are selfless acts and are given with a full heart. Those moments of being found might not be momentous, but they will never be forgotten.
As people left the theater basking in the glow of the stage lights, it was interesting to see fewer screens lighting up people’s faces. For at least a few moments, people were finding each other in real conversations instead of tapping away at another window. If only those real moments weren’t so fleeting. Still, the moment of being found is attainable.
Dear Evan Hansen’s national tour is playing at Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando through April 21. The National Touring company continues with dates through Fall 2020.