In “Dear Evan Hansen” — the emotional Tony Award-winning Broadway musical embracing teenage angst, loneliness, kindness, mental health, and suicidal issues — Manoa Valley Theatre hits all the right notes, with a superb cast led by Darian Keanu Aquino as the title character.

It is a potent and painful glimpse – loaded with tension — of the profound power and unexpected danger of social media, and the unintended fame earned by Evan, a high school student who writes himself an email in a doctor-ordered exercise that  gets into the hands of an unhappy peer, Connor Murphy (Presley A. Wheeler, equally unstable, carefree, sometimes rude, and a free spirit), who finds a printout in the school’s computer room, and steals the letter enroute to committing suicide.

Connor’s mom, Cynthia Murphy (Susan Hawes, every bit a concerned mother), discovers the errant  letter after his death, and it becomes the catalyst  and centerpiece in Evan’s twisted rise to fame and a campus hero.

Darian Keanu Aquino is Evan, Presley A. Wheeler is Connor, in “Dear Evan Hansen.”– Photo by Brandon Miyagi, courtesy MVT.

The show features a book by Steven Levenson  (passionate and eloquent) and music and lyrics by Oscar winners (“La-la Land”) Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (absorbing and heart-tugging tunes). Directed by Rob Duval on a “set” by Elyse Takashige that is a bare but functions as an oversized billboard with periodical projections designed by R. Andrew Doan that propel – Facebook and TikTok fashion – the meandering plot details. The  tech team thus is as vital as the acting ensemble, and together, there’s raw power and cadence that propel the highs and lows of this emotional roller-coaster.

Aquino as  Evan has body language that speaks emotions without words. He is twitchy and nervous, with constant blinking eyes, with a fetish about his wet and clammy hands, always apologizing and possesses a never-ending habit of pulling down his tee shirt, shirt, or hoodie. Evan is a perpetual loner, walking a tightrope with a baggage of worries, not the least of which is his inability to find a genuine friend to sign his cast on his injured left arm. Enter, Connor, an indication that he’s an outsider, too,  

With telling details, the plot is all about relationships, between Evan and his best bud, Jared Kleinman (Shane Nishimura, a charming wise-cracking sidekick, who’s Evan’s only friend), who serves as a warm shoulder to lean on. While Evan accepts Connor’s signature on his cast, he’s a hardly a pal, in life and in his imagined encounters after his passing, but there’s a moment of mutual, vigorous rock-dancing.

Evan, who is attracted to Connor’s sister  Zoe Murphy (Ayzhia Tadeo, initially distant and quizzical but eventually tenderly sweet), overcomes the friction after Connor’s death.

 Further, there’s a relationship between Evan and his working mom, Heidi  Hansen (Vanessa Manuel-Mazzullo ) and with Connor’s parents, Larry Murphy (David Weaver), father of Connor, and Cynthia Murphy (Susan Haws). Not surprisingly, there are cracks and gaps in the relationship, when Evan is “outed” as a liar, the fibs heightened by public acclaim of his befriending Connor.

There’s one more relationship instance, between Evan and Alana Beck (Jenelle Wong, a willing cheerleader), who is co-president with Evan of the Connor Project, which she is fully committed to, to perpetuate the life of Connor.

Evan’s inability to spill the beans of his faux pretenses is understandable; he was a nobody before the tide turned, and the attention serves his psychological deficiencies while simultaneously feeds the frenzy that lifts his ego. That he could even deliver a speech at an assembly of peers plus the Murphy family reflects his lofty status and his declining fragility. And Aquino’s performance gets richer and more robust as Evan’s popularity soars, and the details get more specific and cloudier with fake specifics, like falling from a tree in the orchard of apple trees he had never seen. He’s found pieces from a massive puzzle, and he’s reaching out to complete a portrait he feels his rooters anticipate.

The musical score is splendid and the singers soar; the riches include Evan’s “ “You Will Be Found” in Act 1, the anthem where he laments his loneliness and uncertainty. Evan and Zoe’s duet on “Only Us” assures that his crush is becoming a real romance in Act 2, and Evan’s “Words Fail” is the ultimate “I’m sorry” effort, with the admission, “I never meant to make it such a mess.”

Jenny Shiroma conducts (and also plays keyboards with) the unseen orchestra of eight, supported by the resourceful sound designed by Sarah Velasco and Timothy Manamtam. Lighting designer Chris Gouveia illuminates the set with brilliance; and costume designer Amber Lehua Baker delivers with credible everyday garb. Likewise, Lisa Ponce de Leon’s hair and makeup design also reflects the simplicity the show requires.

For the faint of heart, bring Kleenex, because there will be emotional elements that will evoke tears. Truly. And for those queasy about language, there several F-bombs throughout the play…just so you know.

And with the sensitive health concerns of mental illness, and the element of suicide, MVY has a “You Will Be Found” postcard inserted in the “Dear Evan Hansen” playbill, should there be families or friends with need for support and consultation. Also, HMSA is the presenter of “Dear Evan Center,” cementing potential health needs for the community at large. A noble and necessary involvement…

And that’s Show Biz. …


“Dear Evan Hansen”

A musical by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, with book by Steven Levonson

What: A lonely youth who writes a letter that falls into the hands of a suicidal peer, and the fame then furor, that ensues

Where: Manoa Valley Theatre

When: at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 7; extension dates,  March 29 and 31 and April 6 and 7

Tickets: $36 to $46, at (808) 988-6131 or www.manoavalleytheatre.com

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