Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Powerful “Dear Evan Hanson”: Ethics and Angst in the Digital Age
When news hit that the Tony-winning “Dear Evan Hansen” was headed for L.A. on its first national tour, a dash for tickets seeming mildly reminiscent of the “Hamilton” frenzy began. Such enthusiasm can spark a certain amount of skepticism from someone like me, who has seen a goodly share of musicals come and go. Even a Tony only means it was the best that year on Broadway, not necessarily that it will stand the test of time.
I needn’t have worried. This is a musical for the next generation: youthful isolation, the economic divide, the power of social media to empower or increase that isolation or make a lie seem true, all of these have a place in “Dear Evan Hansen.” What proves remarkable is how well this material is woven together into a touching, warm and real piece of musical expression. Yes, it is deeply emotional, and yes, that is just fine.
Evan Hansen is a self-conscious, awkward, and lonely teenager walking into his senior year of high school. When – under pressure from his worried single mom, and his therapist – he writes a supposedly encouraging letter (though it turns out not to be) to himself and prints it out in the school computer lab, an angry, tormented bully swipes it. When that bully then kills himself with the letter in his pocket, it is taken as a suicide note addressed to Evan, and a fiction begins that gradually changes Evan’s life.
Much of what makes this work is Ben Levi Ross’s Evan. With a strong, yet youthful voice and a remarkable sense of the physical awkwardness which defines Evan’s world, he manages to become complex and vulnerable and mature as the show goes along. Marrick Smith, as Connor, the bully, is able to shift from tormented and angry young man to Evan’s interior alter-ego, again in subtle changes of vocal tone and physical carriage.
Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll, as Connor’s heartbroken and vulnerable parents, and Jessica Phillips, as Evan’s sometimes desperate, loving mother, offer the balance of adult perspectives in this tale. Jared Goldsmith as the tech geek and Phoebe Koyabe as the pushy planner provide the outsiders who fall into or help expand Evan’s increasing online life, giving focus to the immediacy of the teenage experience. As Connor’s conflicted sister and the object of Evan’s yearning, Maggie McKenna provides the general skepticism which grounds the story.
Yet all these serve the larger production, as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs drive the piece and wrench the heart, telling Steven Levenson’s story. Director Michael Grief has molded a technological staging to match the ever-present media which powers Evan’s rise and fall, and illustrate the runaway quality of anything posted on the ‘net. David Korins, as set designer, and Japhy Weideman’s projections bring that online world into the physical reality of the stage in fascinatingly immersive ways.
Austin Cook, as music director, directs an onstage band of power and presence. The songs themselves, especially those which essentially end each act – the powerful “You Will Be Found” which leaves few dry eyes in the the audience, and the gently loving reassurance of family in “So Big/So Small” tie together a piece rooted in emotional connection, and in the ways in which those connections fail and can be mended.
“Dear Evan Hansen” will move you. That is a given. It is for and about a generation musicals rarely work to reach. If you know young people who were thrilled by “Hamilton,” let them see this and recognize, if not themselves then people they have known along the way. It is that kind of show, and its not-completely-happy ending still resonates hope, growth and wisdom.
Note that Stephen Christopher Anthony plays Evan on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees, and Sunday evening performances.
What: “Dear Evan Hansen” When: through November 25, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m and 8 p.m., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 2 p.m. Wednesday, November 21 to compensate for no evening performance on November 22 (Thanksgiving Day) Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles’ Music Center How Much: $99 – $285 Info: 213-972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org