Dear Evan Hansen is a heart-wrenching, ultimately transformative, gut-punch of a musical. The Kennedy Center’s production, directed by Michael Greif and featuring the national touring cast, including the utterly stunning Ben Levi Ross as Evan, is the most intimate, emotionally wrought performance of the show I have yet to see.
Evan, a painfully shy, socially isolated high schooler, has little hope that his senior year will be any better than those before it. Why should it? He’s still…him. Which is to say, invisible. When a letter he writes to himself—an exercise in self-reflection from his therapist—ends up in the hands of Connor (Marrick Smith), a classmate and fellow loner with a reputation for trouble (and brother of Evan’s long-time crush Zoe (Maggie McKenna)) he realizes things actually can get worse. When Connor commits suicide, a simple misunderstanding and a small act of kindness snowballs into a series of inextricable lies. Lies that just might give Evan all of the things he longs for most.
Dear Evan Hansen is a musical unlike anything that had come before it—a psychological snapshot of the social media world teenagers struggle to navigate as their parents look helplessly on (“Anybody Have a Map?”) and the emotional fallout from the ever-increasing isolation technology engenders. What truly sets the show apart is the intimate familiarity captured by songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight, La La Land, The Greatest Showman) and book writer Steven Levenson (Masters of Sex). The songs and script intricately balance the painfully-funny, funnily-painful, and cringingly-awkward interactions between teenagers, their peers, and their parents.
Dear Evan Hansen closes September 8, 2019. Details and tickets
But the script and score also place extraordinary demands on the actor playing Evan- requiring not only an impressive vocal range (Pasek and Paul have a penchant for songs that vault octaves at a time) but the ability to exude utter vulnerability before the audience. I was lucky enough to catch actor Ben Platt (who originated the role) on opening night at Arena Stage in 2015 (its world premiere, also directed by Greif) and was stunned by the palpable tension his performance created in the audience. I later dragged my tween daughter to the Broadway production and was crushed when another actor in the role, though immensely talented, was unable to recreate that vital emotional current. The magic of Dear Evan Hansen was lost.
That is, until Ben Levi Ross took to the Kennedy Center stage. The 21-year old former Carnegie Mellon student (who understudied the role on Broadway) captures the audience’s attention—and affection—within minutes and holds on for dear life. Ross is at once painfully, cringingly awkward and undeniably loveable; charming and anxiety-inducing. Ross’ bumbling exchanges with Zoe and attempts at snarky banter with fellow classmates (Jared Goldsmith, Phoebe Koyabe) elicit encouraging outbursts of laughter from an audience that is clearly on his side. As his desperation grows, you can feel the audience leaning forward in their seats, as if only moments away from climbing on stage themselves to provide comfort and consolation. Ross’ shyly-sweet, almost apologetic brand of comic-tragic magnetism (reminiscent of both Pratt and actor Michael Cena) alone could carry the show.
Not that it needs to. Ross is joined by a truly stellar cast including Broadway veterans Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar, as Zoe and Connor’s parents and Jessica Phillips as Heidi, Evan’s mother. Phillips is a bright spot of comedy throughout as she grapples to connect with her son, and her rendition of “So Big, So Small” is so imploringly beautiful it brings the audience to tears. Smith lends unusual depth to the role of Connor, making him far more sympathetic and less angry bluster. In contrast, McKenna’s Zoe—once a bit of a shrinking violet—shows flashes of defiance, her gorgeously sung “Requiem” laced with a bitterness more befitting the role.
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Director Greif leaves little to distract from the show’s message: David Korins’ set design is minimalist, only a handful of furniture pieces representing various locations. The stage is instead dominated by a series of overlapping, transparent electronic screens that hang at various heights, endlessly displaying scrolling Twitter and Instagram feeds (Projection Designer Peter Nigrini). Often the characters appearing onstage aren’t really together at all, but texting and chatting from their own solitary bedrooms. Similarly, the show’s choreography (Danny Mefford) is brusque and minimal, the characters cycling hurriedly around and between the screens.
While there are moments of hope and redemption throughout—and lots of humor—Dear Evan Hansen leaves me feeling introspective, a bit hollowed out, and anxious to see Ben Levi Ross in his next roles.
Dear Evan Hansen. Book by Steven Levenson. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Orchestration by Alex Lacamoire. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Set Design by David Korins. Projection Designer Peter Nigrini. Costume Designer Emily Rebholz. Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman. Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg. Featuring Jared Goldsmith, Aaron Lazar, Phoebe Koyabe, Maggie McKenna, Christiane Noll, Jessica Phillips, Ben Levi Ross and Marrick Smith. Reviewed by Meaghan Hannan Davant.