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"Dear Evan Hansen" comes home to Washington

Ben Levi Ross (Evan Hansen) and Jessica Phillips (Heidi Hansen) in Dear Evan Hansen. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Four years ago, the Dear Evan Hansen phenomenon was born at Arena Stage right here in Washington. Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks recognized it as a winner early on and continued to report on this compelling new musical's meteoric success on Broadway. Last year the show went on its first North American tour, which landed at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater Thursday night.

The story (book by Steven Levenson) lies at the nexus of many issues facing young people today: social alienation, anxiety, and the social media sites that can make them worse. Evan Hansen is an intensely awkward high-school student being raised by a singer single mother. As part of his therapy, he writes a support letter to himself (thus the title of the musical), trying to improve his mood and ease his worries about the new school year.

Through a series of accidents, without spoiling most of the details, the letter involves him with the family of a classmate of his, a troubled, rage-inclined student named Connor, who takes his own life. Although Evan and Connor did not really know one another, Evan pretends to be his friend, feeding a series of lies to Connor's parents and sister, a ruse fueled by Evan's intense longing for a friend and for a family more present than his mother can be.

Other Reviews:

Peter Marks, Welcome home, ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ You’re back where you belong. (Washington Post, August 8)
For readers like me, the corny plotlines and sappy endings of most musicals are a non-starter. Only those rare tragic musicals are tolerable: someone getting shot (West Side Story), the grim reality of the Holocaust (Fiddler on the Roof), or separation by the war in Algeria (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg). This musical follows a crushingly sad story, especially because just about all the characters need something happy in their lives so desperately that they eagerly accept Evan's rather implausible tale. In a sense, the fake happiness on display every hour of every day on social media filters into reality.

Ben Levi Ross was aloof and even unlikeable in the title role, handling reasonably well the role's vocal demands but without the grain and intensity of Ben Platt, the first Evan. Strongest in singing were the moving performances of Jessica Phillips as Evan's exasperated mother and the vulnerable but emotionally armored Maggie McKenna as Connor's sister, Zoe. Dear Evan Hansen has its laughs, particularly from the comic foil of Evan's friend Jared, who is complicit in the deception, played with biting edge by Jared Goldsmith.

The music and lyrics, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are snappy, in an easy rock style with a few moments of ensemble harmony. The song that ends the first act, "You Will Be Found," is the major hit of the show, with lesser contenders in "Waving Through a Window" and "For Forever," but not much else left an impression. The small band, elevated on a platform at the rear left of the stage, mixes two guitars, drums, keyboard, and bass with three string players from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, led capably from the keyboard by Alex Harrington.

The scenic design by David Korins is ingenious, with video projections constantly embodying the flashing, beeping notifications of social media that invade the characters' lives. (It was probably what Santa Fe Opera's production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs wanted to be but was not.) There were some technical details not quite worked out: Ross's microphone came on late at one point, microphone levels were not optimally adjusted here and there, and Aaron Lazar seemed to have a couple minor memory slips as Connor's father.

Dear Evan Hansen runs through September 8 at the Kennedy Center.


Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of this musical. I just wanted to say maybe you meant "single" mother instead of "singer"?


Charles T. Downey said...

I did indeed. Thanks for the correction!