‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Urges Self-Acceptance in a Noisy World

(L-R) Ben Levi Ross, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll, and Maggie McKenna in the first national tour of "Dear Evan Hansen." Photo by Matthew Murphy

Not since “Hamilton,” has the talk of Tinseltown been about a musical.  The six-time Tony Award-winning “Dear Evan Hansen,” which made a star out of Ben Platt on Broadway, is scheduled to run at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, CA, through November 25th. It is the quintessential drama with a topically 21st-century missive to its audience, touching on not just the potential disingenuousness of social media, but a distressed young man and his lonely conscience, amid a background of his familial surroundings and a viral chatter that envelops him.

Ben Levi Ross (center) and the company of the first national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

With subject matter that often dips into the melancholic reaches of the mind, bringing to light the overreaching significance of mental health, “Dear Evan Hansen” perseveres due to the sensitivity that playwright Steven Levenson imbues his characters. These are real adolescents of the modern age, who wrestle with the same recurring sentiments known to human history, but with the added twist that technology affords them, even unintentionally.

The terrific music and lyrics of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“The Greatest Showman,” “La La Land”) weave an incredibly poignant emotionality into what’s being conveyed, augmented by the contemplative instrumentals played by an intimate-sized band on stage (led by Austin Cook), revealing an evolving portrait of a high school and its town, inclusive of anguish, (false) rewards, and the crucible of guilt.

The story touchingly takes us through the unlikely narrative arc of the hyper-anxious and sweaty-palm-afflicted high-schooler, Evan (Ben Levi Ross). He lives with his mom, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), is recovering from a broken arm, has only one confidant in Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith), and has a crush on schoolmate Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna). Evan suffers from self-doubt and thus writes therapeutic letters addressed to himself at the behest of his doctor. One day, however, one of these is aggressively taken by Zoe’s brother Connor, a bully, who inexplicably commits suicide days later. Along with the fact that Connor was the only one to sign Evan’s cast, the letter ties the two boys, who were virtual strangers to each other, together in a fantastical and deceitful weave of friendship. This brings Evan closer to not only Connor’s parents, Larry and Cynthia (Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll) –and thus fraying his relationship with his mother — but the object of his affection, Zoe. Even worse is when Evan’s fictional closeness to Connor misguidedly blows up into an Internet phenomenon (“The Connor Project”) via the enterprising assistance of Jared and another peer, Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe).

(L-R) Christiane Noll and Jessica Phillips in the first national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

In large part due to Michael Greif’s perfectly paced direction, the fastidious buildup and eventual aftermath are done with great tact, conscientious of the plot’s gut-wrenching resonance and the moral considerations that rightfully override any ephemeral fame. For instance, David Korins’ screen-collaged set, Peter Nigrini’s projections, and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design are especially on point when highlighting the palpable rush of Evan’s ambivalence upon becoming a social media sensation, as manifested by the volatile digital storm that holds him in its thrall.

Like Platt before him, Ben Levi Ross makes the Evan Hansen persona his own, making him intensely relatable and personable not in spite of, but because of his shortcomings. Evan has moments of tragedy, but more so brilliant flashes of realization and maturity that serve as a helpful template for any audience member who feels untapped or trapped like he does. To express oneself truthfully and without apology is the grand theme of “Dear Evan Hansen,” and Ross beautifully evinces an array of sentiments subsumed under this during instances of pensiveness (“Waving Through a Window”), hopeful angst (“If I Could Tell Her”), powerful poignancy (“You Will Be Found”), and heartbreaking resignation (“Words Fail”). Suffice it to say, Ross exhibits an incredible vocal control through it all, utilizing the breadth of his silvery voice to maximum effect.

As Evan’s love interest, Zoe, Maggie McKenna gives a performance that is expertly layered, abounding with emotional complexity. Zoe is reluctant to forgive her brother, and at the same time, her grief runs parallel to being drawn in by Evan’s growing magnetism. McKenna’s purposeful fragility as Zoe allows the audience to see past any pretenses, straight through to the soul of a young woman that is pure and desires to be faithfully loved. To this aim, McKenna’s yearnful vocals during the duet of “Only Us” resonate genuinely precisely because of the innocence they evoke.

Ben Levi Ross (just left of center) and the company of the first national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Marrick Smith plays Connor Murphy, whose post-mortem apparition becomes absorbed into and tangible to Evan’s beleaguered conscience. Moreover, Connor absolutely proves to be a crucial character because he is the switch that turns on a whole new host of plot happenings and motivations. Smith comes alive in “Sincerely, Me,” making an invaluable impact, and yet, appropriately, succeeds at being a sustainable element that isn’t overpowering, but rather acts as counsel to Ross’ Hansen.

Underrated portrayals can additionally be attributed to Jessica Phillips, Christiane Noll, and Aaron Lazar. As parents in the musical, the three effectively emote how burdensome and helpless it can feel to not be able to connect with their characters’ children, or worse, being at the mercy of a fallout that might be irreversible. Phillips authentically conveys being overworked, sometimes forgetful, but still sympathetic as Evan’s mother, Heidi, who struggles to wade through the murky waters pertaining to her son’s state of mind and whereabouts, let alone trying to make sense of the inscrutable dilemma he finds himself in (Phillips’ solo of “So Big/So Small” doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house). As Cynthia and Larry Murphy, Noll and Lazar are similarly moving in how they get across their characters’ mortal need to heal using the support around them. Evan becomes the second son they never had, which is best evinced during Lazar and Ross’ profound father/son-like performance of “To Break in a Glove.”

Ben Levi Ross and Jessica Phillips in the first national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Photo by Matthew Murphy

Finally, Jared Goldsmith plays Jared Kleinman, Evan’s lone (and best) friend. The dynamic Goldsmith offers much liveliness and levity to a role that, despite being a contributor to Evan’s avalanche of a lie, shares observations and truths which stingingly reverberate (e.g., how tragedies are unfortunately capitalized on before they’re forgotten and replaced by the next one — an accurate commentary on the 24/7 news cycle). Phoebe Koyabe, lastly, offers lots of vim and vigor to the character of Alana Beck, an aspirational student who helps engineer the Evan-Connor social media pomp, yet is also perceptive enough to doubt it when inconsistencies are discovered in the faux-buddy story.

Definitively speaking, “Dear Evan Hansen” has already earned rarefied standing because it isn’t just visually or aurally satisfying, but it confidently speaks to the fact that it’s okay to be awkward and unsure of oneself. Where “Dear Evan Hansen” really transcends its musical counterparts, however, is that it also explores the tribulations involved with maturing into a self-accepting and actualized human being who can turn down the ambient and distracting din, look inwardly, and learn from past experiences.

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