A solid production of Dear Evan Hansen is still about as good as American musical theater gets right now.
That’s the main takeaway from the Center Theatre Group’s take on the Tony-winning show, which made its long-awaited premiere in Los Angeles on a star-studded Friday night, at the Ahmanson Theatre. The touring production led by original director Michael Grief and actor Ben Levi Ross is faithful and well-executed, at times heartbreaking, if not fully able to recapture the magic of the musical’s Broadway run.
Such comparisons may be a fool’s errand, of course, when you consider Ben Platt’s otherworldly emotional intensity as the originator of the show’s hero or the sheer singularity with which the whole thing came together at New York’s Music Box Theatre. (I also saw the show with Platt’s immediate replacement, Noah Galvin, who was similarly brilliant.) And there are other quibbles to be had about this particular transfer. But by and large, this Dear Evan Hansen remains a powerful gut-punch with heft. More significantly, as we’re two-and-a-half years from the show’s off-Broadway premiere, it resounds now more than ever — in the audience response, in the continued relevance, in the narrative specificity — as the musical of a generation.
For the unfamiliar: Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of a teenager (Ross) working through crippling anxiety and loneliness; as we meet him, he’s got a big unsigned cast on his arm, having “fallen out of a tree” (or so he says), and has been tasked by his therapist to write letters to himself (hence the show’s title) in which he proclaims, with futile promise, that a great day lies ahead. Yet between the long hours his mother Heidi (Jessica Phillips) works and the isolation he feels at school, the remedy is hardly sufficient. In the school computer lab, he writes himself a letter honestly, plumbing the depths of his pain, only for it to be discovered by a fellow loner, Marrick Smith’s Connor Murphy (to put it glibly, the “freak” to Evan’s “geek”). Connor grabs it from him, fearing Evan is only writing it as a way to mock him.
Connor keeps the letter, and his tragic suicide sets the musical’s events in motion: His grieving parents (Christiane Noll, Aaron Lazar) retrieve the letter in his possessions and find hope that their miserable-appearing son seemed to have developed a connection with someone; Evan perpetuates the lie for too many reasons to count. He helps lift the spirits of Connor’s parents. His voice suddenly, finally matters. He fills the hole in a full family unit, which includes the girl he’s crushing on, Connor’s surviving sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna). He can act out a fantasy.
As Evan Hansen has boomed in popularity, healthy debate over Evan’s actions and the show’s opinion of them has ensued; so, too, have disagreements on the show’s handling of such sensitive topics as depression and grief. Yet the original book by Steven Levenson is durably deft. Evan’s spiraling deeper into a web of lies is never rendered less than human, and the role that shame plays in his keeping up the deceit proves increasingly complex. The story, for all the tricky territory it navigates, more than holds up: In the way it balances a timelessly human story with razor-sharp commentary on social media and its power and perils, Dear Evan Hansen now plays definitively.
The musical is deeply attuned to generational trends and anxieties. The tour show keeps in-tact the immersive production design, in which the ensemble is surrounded by giant Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram screens; the disorienting visuals of rapid viral-video sharing are paired with a cacophony of captioning: “Everyone needs to see this!” and “Please share!” and “A small donation goes a long way!” The actions of Evan, smarmy friend Jared (a very funny Jared Goldsmith), and others quickly mistake the digital-era appearance of generosity and charity for real feeling. How does grief function in today’s world? Hansen uses the theatrical space to present unique, compelling, at times disturbing answers.
It’s interesting to watch Hansen on the other side of the country, more than a year after signature hits such as “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found” emerged as cultural mainstays. The resonance of Ben Pasek and Justin Paul’s astonishing soundtrack is clearer in the theater now: the sustained applause after Ross nails “Waving Through a Window,” the sense of release and joy from my seatmates as the hilarious and lighthearted “Sincerely, Me” follows the pained “For Forever.” They complement Levenson’s excellent book in more ways than one, with lyrics that sting and moods that enhance. That the audience is more in-tune makes the flow feel all the more natural.
More problematically, the production at times strains to hit the biggest notes, perhaps a result of the increased recognizability. Especially when the company is on-stage collectively, singing can turn to shouting, contest-like, and the background instrumentals can turn slightly overpowering (see: “Requiem” and “Good for You”). Fortunately the aforementioned standouts land with the wrenching, melodic, human quality that launched them to Grammy-winning and chart-topping success.
This is a show stuffed with so much beauty that listing what works here would take several paragraphs; allow me merely a few mentions. “You Will Be Found” sends the show into intermission as searingly as any fan could hope for. Phoebe Koyabe maybe does the best work I’ve seen yet as Alana Beck, Evan’s plucky classmate who takes the Connor-memorial effort too far in order to bolster her own visibility and sense of purpose. And this feels like a major moment for Jessica Phillips. The actress had the unenviable challenge of following in the footsteps of Rachel Bay Jones, who won a Tony for her breakout performance. But Phillips holds her own, popping on the show’s margins before Heidi moves toward the show’s center in Act Two. Phillips just devastates with her penultimate solo, “So Big/So Small,” closing it out to a chorus of sniffles from the audience.
She plays beautifully off of Ross, too, a key ingredient to the musical’s success. Overall, our new Evan acquits himself nicely, playing him a bit more broadly than his Broadway counterparts. The work is more apparent, at times the acting too mannered. But Ross hits the big notes. That this is not a perfect Dear Evan Hansen, yet still so thoroughly moving that a few tissues are no less essential to have handy, speaks to just how good and lasting this show is. It gets right at the heart. B+