Regional Reviews: Boston
Dear Evan Hansen
The zeitgeist is front and center in Dear Evan Hansen as the story focuses on a 17-year-old boy who wants to be seen and loved for who he is, yet suffers from extreme social anxiety. He spends most of his time in the glow of the screen of his laptop, having few if any real friends, and disconnected from his over-extended single mother. When troubled classmate Connor Murphy commits suicide and is found with a letter addressed to Evan in his pocket, the boy's grieving parents turn to Evan for solace and any scrap of information he can provide about their son. Although they were not friends, and Evan had actually written the letter to himself as a therapy exercise, he seizes the opportunity to offer comfort to the Murphys and boost his own profile. To say that the situation gets out of hand is an understatement of epic proportions when the web of deceit woven by Evan and his friends goes viral.
We are immersed in the world of these tech-savvy adolescents, thanks to the design team of David Korins (scenic), Peter Nigrini (projection), Japhy Weideman (lighting), and Nevin Steinberg (sound). Director Greif moves the actors around the stage amidst a montage of images and streams of light, as if they are characters in a video game. An array of computer screens hangs overhead, and a limited number of set pieces are rolled on and off to represent Evan's bedroom and rooms in the Murphys' home. Danny Mefford's choreography is organically connected to the scenes and songs in which it appears, achieving the unusual effect of being barely noticeable at the same time as it infuses the action with a sense of youthful spontaneity.
Dear Evan Hansen belongs to the young actors in the major roles, first among them Ben Levi Ross (Evan) (alternate Stephen Christopher Anthony performs three matinee performances per week). Ross is slight and lithe in appearance, but convincingly grows from the timid, anxious nerd to your average, insecure adolescent until he finally shows signs of understanding that being vulnerable and accepting yourself are steps on the road to growing up. Pasek and Paul give him a boatload of musical numbers to develop his character, and Ross has the vocal chops to make us feel what Evan is feeling. Maggie McKenna (Zoe Murphy) has a lovely tone that allows us to hear Zoe in a way that words cannot convey. Jared Goldsmith (Jared), Phoebe Koyabe (Alana), and Marrick Smith (Connor) deliver their songs with emotion and brio.
Levenson writes the roles of the parents with authenticity and nuance, exploring how the two families navigate the shoals of raising challenging teens. Veteran actors Christiane Noll (Cynthia Murphy) and Aaron Lazar (Larry Murphy) play off each other well as their characters struggle to deal with Connor's problems, his suicide, and the aftermath as they incorporate Evan into their lives. Jessica Phillips (Heidi Hansen) captures the frustration, confusion and exhaustion of not just being just a single mom, but having a son like Evan. Her reward is getting to sing the 11 o'clock number ("So Big/So Small") as her explanation, and she nails it.
Although mental health and suicide are prominent themes in Dear Evan Hansen, they eventually melt into the background as the broader topics of communication in the digital age, family dynamics, and finding your voice surge to the forefront. Levenson, Pasek and Paul have felt the pulse of a generation, explored their hopes and anxieties, and identified the intense need for connection. Joined by Greif and the design team they create a virtual world onstage to broadcast the message to all of us, that "no one deserves to disappear," and, as the song says, "You Will Be Found."
Dear Evan Hansen, through August 4, 2019, at the Citizen's Bank Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston MA. Tickets are available at the box office, through Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787, or at www.BroadwayInBoston.com. For more information on the tour, visit dearevanhansen.com/tour/.
Book by Steven Levenson, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Directed by Michael Greif, Choreography by Danny Mefford; Music Supervision, Orchestrations, & Additional Arrangements by Alex Lacamoire; Music Director, Austin Cook; Scenic Design, David Korins; Projection Design, Peter Nigrini; Costume Design, Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design, Japhy Weideman; Sound Design, Kevin Steinberg; Hair Designer, David Brian Brown; Production Stage Manager, David Lober
Cast: Ben Levi Ross, Maggie McKenna, Jessica Phillips, Christiane Noll, Marrick Smith, Aaron Lazar, Jared Goldsmith, Phoebe Koyabe, Stephen Christopher Anthony; Virtual Community Voices: Becca Ayers, Mary Bacon, Gerard Canonico, Jenn Colella, Adam Halpin, Mykal Kilgore, Stephen Kunken, Tamika Lawrence, Carrie Manolakos, Ken Marks, Asa Somers, Jason Tam, Brenda Wehle, Natalie Weiss, Tim Young, Remy Zaken