"Dear Evan Hansen," the Tony-garlanded musical about a high-school senior with a broken arm and social anxiety who ascends to quick, grim celebrity through a misunderstanding, plays at the Paramount through Feb. 2.
Meet Lucy Laybourn: a 15-year-old freshman at Ballard High School who sings for the School of Rock music program and is on the costuming team for her school’s upcoming production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Who better to sit with during a touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which has already been adapted into a novel by Little, Brown’s “Books for Young Readers” imprint and is on its way to becoming a film?
If you’re not familiar with the “Hansen” phenomenon, a quick primer: It’s a relatively taut, two-act, Tony-garlanded musical about Evan, a high-school senior with a broken arm and a seemingly terminal case of social anxiety (his hardworking single mom is very worried) who ascends to quick, grim celebrity through a misunderstanding.
Shortly into the musical, another senior — an angry cipher with ratty hair and a black wardrobe named Connor — kills himself. Before Connor commits suicide, he signs Evan’s cast with the vim of a vandal, writing “CONNOR” in huge Sharpie scrawl. He also snatches one of the daily notes Evan writes to himself on the advice of his therapist. (“Dear Evan Hansen: Turns out this wasn’t an amazing day after all.”) Connor’s corpse is found with the note, which his parents assume was written to Evan. Evan’s cast reads “CONNOR.” Two plus two equals bereaved people desperate to latch onto any shreds from Connor’s pre-suicide existence, so Evan finds himself boxed into performing the role of best friend to a dead classmate he barely knew.
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Lies beget bigger lies, of course, and Evan becomes an accidental internet celebrity crusading against teen suicide. The whole thing is a sham (a noble sham, but still a sham) and Evan’s moral dilemmas are as thick as chocolate syrup — set to a pop-inflected, fraught-but-honeyed score.
“I’ll bet you a dollar someone in our vicinity will cry,” Lucy said over cocoa before the show. (I was skeptical, but Lucy won.) Lucy was concerned the touring performers would feel obligated to replicate their Broadway forerunners. “Will it feel natural?” she asked. “Or like they’re struggling inside the production that came before?”
She was also curious about the scenic design by David Korins, who designed the minimalist but highly functional set for “Hamilton.” “His sets are designed to be used,” she said. “Nothing you see is extra — his sets are meant to be run around on, which keeps focus on the performers.”
I agree — and we weren’t disappointed. Large screens dominated the stage, best used for email threads and social-media feeds, physicalizing the distracted mental state of being online. The online repercussions of the characters’ flesh-and-blood decisions were always looming just above and behind.
“When they used the screens well, it was amazing,” Lucy said afterward. “Like when characters texted each other, and the actors came into the light to talk, it was clear they were talking online.”
The screens didn’t work so well for her when used to show fragments of real-life backgrounds (a glint of sunlight on a house window). “It seemed like the screens were designed for use in a couple of key songs for the show, but the rest of it didn’t feel like it belonged. … Then it looked really busy and took away from watching the show.”
Jared, a smartass and one of Evan’s only pre-Connor friends, is her favorite character. Mine, too. Actor Jared Goldsmith brought snickering, lewd levity to a story that flirts with after-school-special mawkishness. (When Jared first sees Evan’s arm cast, he sneers gleefully: “Is it weird to be the first person in history to break their arm from jerking off too much, or is that some sort of honor?”)
Jared, she said, “is the kind of the stereotype of the next-door kid your mom wants you to be friends with — the supersmart kid with a weird sense of humor.” Each character walks an efficient tightrope as an identifiable type (overworked single mom, rascal, overachiever) without falling into the hole of cliché. “It didn’t get too specific in terms of their cliques, which left room to explore individual characters,” Lucy said. “It’s like improv — you want to establish a character quickly, come up with a couple of things they do (a voice, an action, a thing) that makes the audience immediately go: ‘Oh, ha ha, that’s so that character.’ ”
We also agreed that Stephen Christopher Anthony, in the role of Evan on the night we attended, aced playing introverted on a big stage. “Awkward is funny,” she said. “You can think: ‘Oh, I’ve been there and I’m glad it’s not me this time.’ ”
Lucy said the current run of American musicals fall into roughly three camps: poppy (“Be More Chill,” “Waitress,” “Dear Evan Hansen”); musicals that take old formulas and tweak them (“Hamilton,” “Wicked”); and old-formula shows that just won’t die (“Les Misérables” and “CATS,” coming to the Paramount this March). “Ugh, ‘CATS,’ ” she said. “Why ‘CATS’? That’s the question America should be asking itself.”
New musicals like “Evan Hansen,” she added, can be a little synthesizer-heavy. “But I get it, replacing wind instruments with that electronic element so they don’t have to hire other musicians.”
Her final verdict?
“I would definitely recommend the show to others,” Lucy said, “but knowing how expensive traveling Broadway shows can be, I would advise them to think carefully about buying a ticket that costs a ridiculous amount of money unless they really love the show.”
I concur. And I still owe her a dollar.
“Dear Evan Hansen” through Feb. 2; Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; tickets start at $50; 800-982-2787, stgpresents.org