“Dear Evan Hansen” is all grown up, and he’s coming back home for the summer.
And what an incredible journey it has been for this musical born on the stage of Arena’s Kreeger Theater, which hosted its world première in July 2015, before spending some time off-Broadway at Second Stage and finally settling down at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre.
Original star Ben Platt may not have been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award in D.C. for his devastating portrayal of a lonely teenager who longs to fit in, but he was handsomely rewarded with the 2017 Tony for best leading actor in a musical. In addition to its total haul of six Tonys, the adoration for this much-celebrated musical runs even deeper. At last Thursday’s performance at the Kennedy Center, a young theatergoer was dressed up as the titular character complete with a cast covering his arm.
Instead of moving back into Arena, “Dear Evan Hansen” has found much larger digs in Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, its temporary home through Sept. 8. This highly intimate musical, with superb direction by Michael Greif (“Rent”), works well in this smaller venue. Besides, another spinner of lies—Aladdin—is currently charming the crowd in the Opera House.
In “Dear Evan Hansen,” it is a lie that sets the beloved polo shirt-wearing protagonist on a morally questionable path. One of the pep-talk letters that Evan wrote to himself (as advised by his therapist) is found on Connor Murphy, a fellow classmate who took his own life and the brother of his longtime crush Zoe. Evan unintentionally leads Connor's parents to believe that their son wrote it to him and they were the best of friends. The fact is: Evan barely knew the kid, even though he signed his cast. This was right before Connor knocks him down after discovering his letter, which mentions Zoe, and runs off with it.
The deception gets even messier with fabricated email exchanges, memorial buttons and wristbands, and a fundraising campaign to restore an apple orchard in Connor’s memory. It’s actually Evan who has a thing for trees; he broke his arm falling out of one over the summer.
This make-believe friendship brings much comfort to Connor’s wealthy parents, who treat Evan like a surrogate son to the point that they want to provide him with college money, and in turn, Evan gets the girl and the family he’s always wanted: a father to talk about stuff with like baseball and a mother who’s there to just be a mom and make dinner. Evan's own mother is hardly around because of work or night school, leaving him on his own at dinnertime; and his father left when he was 7 and has a new family to care for.
As for Connor, the audience only catches a few glimpses of the real him—a loner, an outsider—just like Evan, but through Evan’s stories, his parents and his sister are able to picture a happier and more caring version with hopes and dreams. Marrick Smith does a nice job portraying this light-hearted Connor, beyond the stoner bully version we first meet.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is an emotional powerhouse of a musical, as it tackles heavy issues such as mental illness, teen suicide and loneliness in today's super-connected society, but it's also punctuated with moments of levity (courtesy of Evan's wisecracking “family friend” and partner in crime Jared, played by Jared Goldsmith). The scenic design by David Korins, featuring projections by Peter Nigrini, is visually striking with scrolling social media posts emblazoned across vertical panels enveloping the show’s characters.
The musical also explores how people experience grief and come together after tragedy, whether it’s finding connection in person or online. However, it glosses over the consequences of Evan’s actions and pain and online abuse inflicted upon Connor’s family—his comeuppance is shockingly minimal. And what about the $50,000 that strangers contributed for all those trees?
Plot issues aside, "Dear Evan Hansen"—featuring a book by Steven Levenson—is filled with relatable characters as they navigate through their struggles with adolescence or parenthood. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the talented songwriting team who also gave us the irresistibly catchy tunes of “The Greatest Showman,” have crafted a catalog of memorable melodies saturated in a range of emotions.
The musical's first national touring production comes with a top-notch cast, who go to great emotional depths to share this poignant story inspired by a real-life incident from Pasek's high school years.
As Evan, Ben Levi Ross delivers an achingly raw performance as the anxiety-ridden teenager, who first sings of being “on the outside, always looking in,” before becoming a social media sensation after his school speech about Connor goes viral. It's hard not to be moved by the chill-inducing "You Will Be Found," act one's anthemic closing number, or the tearjerker "Words Fail," when his game of pretend comes crashing down on him.
Zoe is sweetly portrayed by Maggie McKenna, who's gifted with the most enchanting voice. Her performance of "Requiem," with Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll as her parents, is immensely affecting as they deal with Connor's death differently in separate scenes onstage. Jessica Phillips also turns in a strong performance as Evan’s hard-working single mom, Heidi, who is doing everything she can to provide a good life for her family. Her songs, the edgy rocker "Good for You" and the soothing “So Big / So Small," convey a parent's frustration and need to comfort their child.
From its début to Broadway darling status, "Dear Evan Hansen" has certainly made its voice heard, striking a chord with especially younger fans, and the musical leaves a part of it in its D.C. birthplace. Evan's signature blue-striped shirt and cast, among other items, now joins a collection of Broadway artifacts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.