Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
As a writer, I'm keenly attuned to the structure of a story, and the richness and veracity (or lack thereof) of dialogue and character development. Sometimes, as with Jersey Boys, text can be spare but incredibly efficient, creating an incredible ratio of words:story. Other times, as with Hamilton, the language is opulent and free-flowing and the story complex and multi-faceted. Dear Evan Hansen delivers the best of both approaches: bookwriter Steven Levenson has fashioned a story that is complex, compelling, and dense with words and emotionyet still so compact and engaging that my attention never once wavered throughout the 2.5-hour running time.
Dear Evan Hansen concerns a high school senior who is so socially awkward that he not only has zero friends at school, he can't even work up the courage to order a pizza because he'd have to interact with the delivery person who'd bring it to his door. Dad is long gone, paying attention to his new family, and mom is working a challenging job and going to night school, so Evan (a terrific Ben Levi Ross, with a powerful voice that is perfect for the role) is often alone. He has a crush on one of his schoolmates, Zoe (Maggie McKenna), that put me in mind of Charlie Brown's relationship to the Little Red-Haired Girl: he is completely besotted, and imagines how he will one day walk right up to her and say hello in the coolest, most relaxed and confident waybut of course simply can't.
We can understand why. Evan is bright, perhaps even gifted, but he can't seem to filter his speech, so everything that's on his mindappropriate or notseems to come spilling out in a torrent of words any time he interacts with any human being besides his mother Heidi (Jessica Phillips).
As the show begins, it's the first day back at school after summer vacation. In order to help Evan with his awkwardness, his mom has engaged a therapist for him, who has suggested that he write himself a letter that tells him what a great day it's going to be and why. But when he actually writes it, it's the opposite of optimism, and when Evan accidentally (on purpose?) lets Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), the school's stoner loner and brother of Zoe, get his hands on the letter, everything starts to go seriously sideways. Without spoiling the rather intricate plot, the letter is misinterpreted (and miscredited), and Evanwith only the best of intentionsends up wrapping himself in a tangled web of lies that end up having consequences that are beyond anyone's ability to manage, let alone a shy, troubled 17-year-old.
It is here where Dear Evan Hansen lifts itself into a richer, more complex (and intellectually rewarding) place. For, in addition to the themes of teen angst and self-worth, the musical raises an even larger question: if good things happen, does it matter that they are built on a foundation of lies? Two very bad things happen early in the show. One character takes his own life, and Evanperhaps through no fault of his ownis drawn into the drama, and then exacerbates the drama in an attempt to bring some comfort to a grieving family (that just happens to include his love interest).
But thanks to Evan's lies, which get larger and more detailed and messier as time goes by, this tragedy begins to turn around a community and bring it together as never before. A family begins to care for each other in a way that has clearly been lacking. A school comes together and cliques give way to a sense of belonging. An entire nation, linked by social media, is lifted by an inspiring storywhich they have no idea is complete bullshit. It's the placebo effect on a massive scale. Early in the show, Evan sings "When you're falling in a forest and there's nobody around, do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?" If a personor a family, or a nationgains comfort from a story that is based on lies, does it really ease their pain?
If Dear Evan Hansen is built on the foundation of a brilliant, complex story (with dialogue and characters that are natural and fully realized and multi-dimensional), the rest of the structure is just as lovingly constructed. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is powerful and energetic. Though it's not exceptionally tuneful, and not a cast recording I'd buy or listen to later, it nonetheless perfectly complements the story and staging. The set design by David Korins is an array of rectangular projection screens that display a constant feed of social media text and imagery, as well as graphic projections by Peter Nigrini that are often spread across several screens, shredding them into bits and piecesin much the same way the characters' lives are seen through the eyes of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram: incomplete and disjointed.
Evan's uplifting message following the suicide is that "no one deserves to fade away." In our modern experience of social media, no one ever really will fade awayall those tweets and posts and photos will live in a server farm somewhere forever. But does this digital immortality really give any more value to any single human life? Or is that still only found in the personal connections we have with the people we interact with in the flesh?
Dear Evan Hansen raises this questionand othersin a brilliant, utterly thrilling fashion that deserves to be seen by any lover of musical theatre. Or humanity, for that matter.
Dear Evan Hansen, through December 30, 2018, at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $99-$325, and can be purchased by visiting sfcurran.com, calling 415-358-1220, or visiting the box office between 10:00am and 6:00pm Monday-Friday. For more information on the tour, visit dearevanhansen.com/tour/.