There are different ways of being caught in a lie.
For the titular high school student at the center of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” the trouble, at least at first, is less a fear of deception discovered than an unlikely misunderstanding spinning so out of control that he keeps lying more and more to avoid embarrassment and spare other people’s feelings.
When a despairing letter that Evan wrote to himself is found on the body of a troubled schoolmate who committed suicide, Evan can’t bear to correct the bereaved parents’ assumption that he and Connor Murphy were close friends. In fact neither of them had any friends.
Soon Evan has made up so many details of the fictional friendship to comfort the Murphys that he’s gone too far not to keep going, and his story has gone viral online. The lie becomes a lifeline, not just for Evan and the Murphy family but for classmates and thousands of strangers who take solace in the story.
With a book by Steven Levenson (“Fosse/Verdon”) and marvelously catchy songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land”), the show was a smash hit on Broadway in 2016, winning six Tony Awards including best musical, book and score, as well as a Grammy for its original cast recording. It was also made into a not-particularly-well-received movie last year.
Now “Dear Evan Hansen” is back in San Francisco, hitting BroadwaySF’s Orpheum Theatre on its North American tour after playing the Curran back in 2018. (Last summer Broadway San Jose brought the tour to San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts with a mostly different cast.)
Director Michael Greif’s production still packs a lot of power on this go-round. David Korins’ shifting, versatile set is dominated by screens scrolling social media feeds and other texts in Peter Nigrini’s captivating projection design.
Anthony Norman exudes gut-wrenching anxiety as Evan Hansen. He lies all the time, reflexively, to deflect difficult conversations and to tell people what they want to hear — or, increasingly, what they need to hear.
August Emerson’s Connor Murphy makes a fascinating imaginary friend. Surly and volatile, he’s both the angel and devil on the shoulders of a kid who can no longer tell the difference.
Connor’s sister Zoe gets the worst of the deception, because Evan’s in love with her. At Thursday’s performance, understudy Gillian Jackson Han played Zoe with touching incredulity and frustration, as well as more kindness and patience with Evan than anyone might have thought possible (least of all him).
Lili Thomas as Connor’s mom is clearly at the end of her rope, desperate for some retroactive connection to her son, while John Hemphill is closed off and reserved to a fault as Connor’s dad. Evan’s single mom, played with long-suffering bewilderment by Coleen Sexton, is overworked and seldom home, trying her best to help her son without knowing the half of what he’s going through.
Pablo David Laucerica is hilariously cynical and sarcastic as Jared, a family friend who becomes Evan’s unlikely confidant, and Micaela Lamas’ Alana is amusingly awkward and ambitious, also latching onto Connor’s death as a way to finally feel seen and connected.
It’s an intimate musical, with a cast of eight and crisp, often acoustic orchestrations played beautifully by the small onstage band led by music director Garret Healey.
It’s really the songs that make the story soar, and they’re tremendous. In the first act especially, it’s one infectious and heartrending song after another. Evan, Connor and Jared’s poppy, upbeat number inventing old emails is particularly unforgettable.
What Evan does is monstrous, and a lot of the show’s appeal is in the vicarious discomfort of watching him dig himself deeper and deeper and imagining how crushing it will be for all concerned what it all inevitably falls apart.
And yet it’s honestly touching as well, not because what he does is in some way excusable but because what he’s speaking to, in others and in himself, is a deep need for connection, to be seen. In a way what hurts the most is how much this complete fabrication helps, knowing that it’s built on something insubstantial and unsustainable and didn’t have to be.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘DEAR EVAN HANSEN’
Book by Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, presented by BroadwaySF
Through: Feb. 19
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $66.50-$184.50 www.broadwaysf.com