When the touring production of Dear Evan Hansen reached Bass Hall this past week, I exited the building during the intermission to take the mask off my face and breathe in some cold winter air. I heard everyone talking about the movie version they had or hadn’t seen and which I reviewed less than four months ago. I guess that’s the hazard of putting on a successful new musical stage production: The movie’s going to come out at some point, and when it does, everyone will be comparing the theatrical experience to the one that Hollywood put together. I’ll say that when the Bass Hall show did reach its end, I did not regard the experience as a wasted evening.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, it’s about an awkward teenager whose therapeutic exercise becomes mistaken for something else when a kid at his school named Connor takes his letter to himself and later kills himself. Connor’s parents think that Evan was Connor’s best friend at school, and Evan goes from social outcast to brave and bereaved. Under peer pressure, Evan fakes evidence to support the nonexistent friendship that everyone wants to believe.
One thing that becomes evident onstage is the multiplicity of screens that are mounted above the stage that project the various tweets and video responses to Evan’s actions during the play. The setup makes you appreciate how this show must have looked when it premiered on Broadway back in the bright, distant days of 2015, conveying the social media experience better than any theatrical play had done up to that point. That’s important for telling the story of how Evan’s deception plays out on YouTube and Facebook to become an online phenomenon. The show’s attack on social media and how it has screwed up our personal lives doesn’t really land.
The performance I attended had alternate Sam Primack portraying Evan, and I wonder how much advance notice he was given before going on. He seemed all over the place at the beginning of the show, with Evan’s insecurity and low self-esteem coming out manic in his hands. His voice, too, a naturally powerful instrument, was fading in and out of the early songs. He did grow stronger as the evening went on, though, and he didn’t fail the challenges of the big, dramatic numbers, “You Will Be Found” and “Words Fail.”
The rest of the cast was fine, rather more so was Alessandro Constantini as Evan’s computer-nerd friend Jared, who helps him fabricate the email messages proving that Evan was friends with Connor (Nikhil Saboo). The actor brings some bracing evil glee to the role, as Jared goes beyond his brief and keeps trying to sneak lurid stuff into Connor’s messages, having him say, “My sister is hot.”
The auditorium at Bass Hall was close to full on a Tuesday night, and I only felt safe there because the audience was entirely masked up and had to show their vaccination cards just to enter the facility. I can imagine it will be even more so when Hamilton makes its pandemic-delayed appearance there next week. It seems that live theater fans have been kept away from performances even longer than fans of concerts and movies, and they’re aching for an event that’s worth braving the Omicron variant for. That crowd was perhaps the most encouraging sign that the business of theater that forms such a key part of Fort Worth’s cultural scene might return to something like its pre-COVID self.