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Dear, Oh Dear: Pioneer launches season with ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

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By Owen Bryant

The 2023 season of Broadway Comes to Reno has officially kicked off, and it sure did start out with a bang. The Tony Award-winning “Dear Evan Hansen” is the latest production to grace the Pioneer stage, and although it did not disappoint, it’s not exactly a feel-good show. Not to say every show has to be uplifting, but “Dear Evan Hansen” is a conundrum that may leave some more bewildered than at peace.

On the surface, “Evan” presents itself as a simple teenage drama. The title character, played by understudy Reese Sebastian Diaz, is your typical high school loner. A geek in an arm cast, with no friends, a mom who barely has time for him, a crush on a girl who doesn’t know he exists, and her brother, a relentless bully. 

Evan is tasked by his therapist to write a letter to himself each day full of positive affirmations. But one day, Evan decides to be honest and writes about how dissatisfied with life he actually is. When school bully Connor (August Emerson) gets hold of it during a scuffle, he taunts Evan, takes the letter home, and then kills himself. Connor’s parents find the letter and assume it’s a suicide note, written to Evan. They assume the two were friends (they weren’t) and immediately accept Evan into their home to learn about all the things they never knew about their son. 

And Evan goes along with it.

Ultimately the story is about grief, the adolescent yearning for acceptance, and the consequences of lying. But these topics mix into a tumultuous concoction that does little to quell the audience’s anxiety. And that’s how I felt throughout the entire story. 

It’s not a bad story, per se, but the ever-growing fabrication of this friendship-that-never-was kept me tense and uncomfortable, and it overshadowed the other themes of acceptance and honoring the dead. While the character Evan Hansen isn’t inherently a bad person, it was hard to not judge him for continuing such a horrendous act. I eventually lost sympathy for him, to the point where his redeeming moment came too little too late. It’s a bit problematic when you can no longer identify with the main character.

Despite all of this, “Dear Evan Hansen” was not a bad show, by any means. It is mostly a very young cast, and each actor pulled their characters off effortlessly. 

The set design was unique, composed of panels that reflected what was going on in the virtual universe. As Connor’s memory goes viral, text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts flash across the screens demonstrating the movement Evan started. Based on a lie. In this world where anything can go viral at any moment, you can understand how quickly things can get out of one’s control. 

Another high point of the production was Evan’s mother Heidi (Coleen Sexton). Though she’s a busy single mom, never once do you doubt the love she shares for her son, even when she finds out what he did. It did provide a little tender mercy for a character who otherwise deserves all the consequences that come to him.

There is a recent film version of this show that I haven’t seen, also a musical, but I wonder if this story would be better suited as a straight play. The music itself was unremarkable. Not bad, but nothing about it really stood out, hook-wise, and given the subject matter, breaking into song sometimes just didn’t seem appropriate. That may be just a personal matter of taste, however.

From what I have heard, “Dear Evan Hansen” is a polarizing work. There is no question that the touring company put on a well-executed show. It’s just that the show itself is intentionally confounding. Some people may recognize and accept the redemption Evan finds at the end. But as for myself, there is little he deserved in terms of redemption. 

Whether you love it or hate it, “Dear Evan Hansen” does make you think. About a lot of heavy things.

Show notes

  • Dear Evan Hansen
  • Book by Steven Levenson
  • Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
  • Directed by Michael Grief

Upcoming productions at the Pioneer Center

  • Ain’t Too Proud: Feb. 14-19
  • Reno Phil: Feb. 25 & 26
  • Boxtales Theatre Company: March 10
  • Come From Away: March 28-April 2
  • House of Waters: May1
  • Artown Presents MOMIX Alice, May 9
  • Anatasia: May 16-21
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