There have been plenty of musicals about complicated, grieving families over the years, but until now, there has not been one tailor-made for the social media era. Enter Dear Evan Hansen, the 2017 Tony winner for Best Musical that opened last night at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. With music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Steven Levenson, the story follows a teenage boy struggling with often debilitating anxiety whose life is irrevocably changed when a classmate commits suicide.
Directed by Michael Greif (Rent and Next to Normal, the latter of which shares noticeable amounts of DNA with Dear Evan Hansen), this is a marvel of a show for many reasons, and it is easy to see why it has garnered the buzz it has. But it is also a difficult show that exists in a morally grey area. When the story begins, Evan (Ben Levi Ross) is living a quiet, fairly miserable life. His single mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips) is rarely home, always hustling at her job as a nurse’s aide or taking classes to become a paralegal in an effort to give her son the best life she can. She worries about Evan’s anxiety, making him therapy appointments and encouraging him to take his medication.
It is an assignment for therapy that gets Evan into a mess—he writes a letter that begins “dear Evan Hansen” outlining how alone and hopeless he feels, but it’s picked up in the computer lab by Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), an angry, depressed fellow student. When Connor commits suicide days later, the letter is found in his pocket, and his family understandably but mistakenly assumes it to be a suicide note addressed to Evan, who clearly must have been a very close friend of Connor. Add in the fact that Connor’s sister, Zoe (Maggie McKenna) is Evan’s longtime crush and you have a cringeworthy situation that only gets worse. Soon, Evan is making up stories and fabricating old emails to craft a picture of a friendship he never actually had with Connor, and the Murphys could not be a more rapt audience.
The way Evan digs himself deeper and deeper into this mess is gradual enough that it feels believable. As the lie takes on more of a life of its own, it starts to own him, as opposed to vice versa. Each member of the Murphy family is grieving in a different way, and each of them finds something they need for their own grieving process in Evan—and in return, Evan finds something in each of them that he’s been missing in his own life. Connor’s mother, Cynthia (Christiane Noll) is despondent, miserable she missed the signs, and heartbroken she apparently didn’t know her son that well at all. Evan offers her, on a silver platter, stories that allow her to “meet” a new side of Connor. Connor’s dad, Larry (Aaron Lazar) is in denial at first, taking a long time to even break down and cry, but in Evan he finds a son who will humor him about silly things like proper baseball glove care in a way Connor never did—and Evan, whose own father left when he was seven, could not be happier to listen. And neither of them ever says a word to Evan about needing to go to therapy to address his mental illness, which his shortsighted teenage brain interprets as his own mother wanting to “fix” or change him.
And then there’s Zoe, whose relationship with her brother when he was alive consisted primarily of him banging on her bedroom door and threatening to kill her for no reason. She is confused, struggling to reconcile the expectation of grief and sadness with the hate she often felt toward her only sibling. But Evan’s mention of Zoe in “Connor’s suicide note” throws her, and gives her hope that maybe her brother cared about her after all. In many ways, this false hope is one of Evan’s most unforgivable offenses, because it makes Zoe question the validity of her own feelings, and feel ashamed for not being all that sad her brother is gone. Like so much else in this show, it is all based on a lie. Inevitably, the house of cards Evan has built starts to crumble, and it is difficult to watch. Rounding out the small cast are Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), Evan’s over-achieving classmate who becomes obsessed with keeping Connor’s memory alive despite not really knowing him, and Jared (Jared Goldsmith), Evan’s only actual friend, a wisecracker who helps him write the fake emails and perpetuate the lie.
Evan is not an easy character to root for, and whether or not you do at all relies entirely on the central performance. Ross is fantastic, finding a color of Evan inspired by and yet entirely different from the portrayal by Ben Platt, who created the role and won a Tony for it. While Platt was more sad and fearful, Ross is more perpetually on edge, with a tendency to start talking way too loud when he’s panicking and to rapidly blink his eyes when stressed. He also possesses a fine voice with which to sing the memorable and challenging score, earning extended applause for the act one showstopper “Waving Through a Window.” You can never decide whether you want to shake Evan or give him the biggest hug in the world.
The rest of the cast is also terrific. Phillips, Noll, and Lazar, all longtime veterans of Broadway, are constantly reminding the audience that this story is just as much about the parents as it is the children. Phillips’s “So Big/So Small” is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the show, and Noll and Lazar are worth watching even when in the background of scenes, as they are constantly wading through their own evolving grief. McKenna is lovely at Zoe, constantly balancing anger and softness, and her voice is beautiful on songs such as “Requiem” and “Only Us.” Another standout is Smith as Connor, who thankfully gets to stick around onstage long after the character has passed.
There is an argument to be made that Evan gets off easy in the end, or that the show spends too much time making excuses for his choices. But, particularly in this age of the internet, which is such a huge component of the show, to think of a punishment worse than what happens to him would be quite cold-hearted. Yes, Evan makes a lot of increasingly terrible, often selfish choices that he self-justifies by telling himself he is helping other people—which he is, but he is also helping himself. He treats his mother and Jared, his one loyal friend, poorly. And the show definitely wants you to like him, but even more so, it wants you to understand him, and thanks to Ross’s fine performance, this production accomplishes that.
Dear Evan Hansen is a very high quality show all-around, from the performances to the music to the very modern set and projection design (David Korins and Peter Nigrini), which shows a never-ending stream of tweets and texts and Facebook statuses, creating an ironic backdrop of constant connection for a show that is all about the anguish of feeling terribly alone. And regardless of where you decide Evan’s moral compass falls, the message of the show is an important, hopeful one. “You are not alone,” the cast sings in “You Will Be Found,” the heart-wrenching act one closer. Sure, not all of the messaging is perfect—who Connor actually was as a person is largely lost in the shuffle as his death is appropriated for an internet movement, although that is quite possibly the point. But in each audience there is surely at least one person who desperately needs to hear that they are not alone, and for that reason, it is important that a show like Dear Evan Hansen exists.
Dear Evan Hansen runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through November 25th. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $99 and can be purchased here. For an opportunity to win $25 tickets, enter the digital lottery. Upcoming tour stops include Tempe and San Francisco, and tickets for those engagements can be purchased here. For information about the Broadway, Toronto, and London productions, click here.