HOLLYWOOD—“Dear Evan Hansen” is making box office history with its current tour across the country, and now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It was a hit on Broadway, making a star of Ben Platt, from Los Angeles, who originated the role of Evan, and winning a Tony Award for Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (Music and Lyrics).
In “Dear Evan Hansen,” this team brings social anxiety disorder and depression front and center to the stage, effectively weaving the drama, with just the right touch of humor, through their captivating music. Pasek & Paul may even be the first team to start a new category, EGGOOT winners, garnering Emmy, Grammy, Golden Globe, Oscar, Obie and Tony awards. Something to write home about, if not to their therapists.
Evan Hansen (now played by Ben Levi Ross, the understudy from NY) is a troubled youth. His father walked out when Evan was seven, and he struggles with a non-specified disorder, leaving him unable to find friends or a place in a society that he is having difficulty navigating. His single mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), is stretched tight, working long hours as a nurses’ aide, and attending classes, hoping to gain more income to support her son, get him to his therapist, monitor his drugs, and help him connect. In the process, she has forgotten to simply hug him, and love him for what he is or is not.
Meanwhile, at his school, Connor and Zoe Murphy, Jared Kleinman, and Alana Beck are having equally difficult times. Connor (Marrick Smith), the older brother of Zoe (Maggie McKenna), is angry and withdrawn, smoking pot and berating his parents (Larry and Cynthia, played by Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll), sister and schoolmates, if he communicates at all. Zoe is bitter that Connor gets all the attention. Their distant parents are proof that “when you’re rich and you don’t have a job, you get crazy.” Then there’s Jared (Jared Goldsmith), the “family friend” who claims he is forced by his parents to be friendly to Evan. Ironic, since his only other friends are the invented camp buddies he references. Flitting in and out like a noisy butterfly is Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), who desperately reaches out to anyone and everyone, but doesn’t let them get a word in edgewise, or let them get in at all, before she flies away.
Eight people, floundering. It’s painful, it’s raw, it’s real. Evan gets an assignment from his therapist to write daily letters to himself, beginning with, “Dear Evan Hansen: Today is going to be a good day….” He starts on one, which is then snatched from the printer in the school computer lab by Connor. He and Connor have a brief scuffle, and then Connor shoves the paper in his pocket, slips out, and checks out of life. Connor’s parents discover Evan’s letter in their son’s pocket and take it to be the suicide letter Connor wrote to his one dear friend they knew nothing of, Evan. When they meet Evan, they try to fill in the blanks and he takes the bait. He then gets himself caught in the dense web of a lie, as he finally discovers a purpose in life: to give closure and connection to this broken family. It doesn’t hurt that this web also enwraps his crush, Zoe, into his life.
His lie spins out of control, to a screaming crescendo of viral projections (literally effected by Peter Nigrini’s Projection Design and Japhy Weideman’s Lighting Design), as the internet turns not only Connor into a superstar, but also Evan, Alana, and Jared. They are now popular, important, and connected, but it’s all a lie, and as viral goes, undoubtedly fleeting. This is troubling, for an audience, and for an individual. Such is the drumbeat of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
I teach musical theatre to kids, and this summer, several of them worked on the music of Pasek and Paul. I grew to love their music, but I had my reservations about the story line of “Dear Evan Hansen” and wondered how I would feel about it when I would see it on the stage. A young person finding a reason to exist, by living a lie? What hit me most this summer, knowing just the skeleton of the show, was that I wished Evan had discovered a Musical Theatre class.
After having seen the show opening night at the Ahmanson, I still feel that way, but I also found that all eight characters in the story would also have benefited from joining the cast of a musical at their high school or elementary school or community theatre. All the characters in this play need to connect, but they don’t see that “there’s no place like home.” If only they had realized that all the people in this circle could have found just as valid a purpose by connecting to one another, on their own truths.
There are two mantras in “Dear Evan Hansen,” one being, “#YouWIllBeFound,” and the other, “#YouAreNotAlone.” “You will be found” is a dubious one. It may have a nice ring to it, but not so much for Connor. He committed suicide. He was perhaps “found” after death, but that was an invented Connor. The popularity pinned to him at death is empty, and unfortunately too often what happens. Many of the shooters/murderers/suicides in real life are clearly seeking notoriety through death. This must not be confused with being “found.” The phrase “You are not alone” is one to hold on to, however. If only we could all find one another.
I do take pride in being involved in theatre, particularly with teaching our youth. I have seen and witnessed its power firsthand: theatre allows a connection so unique from other school experiences for children. Theatre casts bond in ways that no other vehicle allows. The so-called “nerds” find friends, acceptance, a voice. Younger students find strength through the elders taking them under their wing, and the elders learn leadership. Those who have trouble speaking are given lines to say. People who can’t find themselves can find a character to hide behind, or explore, or have control over, better than they can understand themselves at first; eventually, this often gives them the confidence to trust themselves. People like Evan Hansen don’t have to lie in life, they can act, on stage. It can be a beautiful thing.
And through drama, audiences, too, can find themselves, in a darkened theater, their lives brought to light and life on the stage. “Dear Evan Hansen” (directed by Michael Greif, based on a book by Steven Levenson) does just that, and that is why it is the success it has become. It is moving, riveting, troubling, and though a raw example of how a lie can do harm, it shows that the story of the telling of a lie can possibly lead to the truth. We need to reach out and discover each other, and in so doing, find ourselves. Bravo to “Dear Evan Hansen” for navigating that path, giving us a map, and thus opening this dialogue through beautiful music and lyrics, excellent acting, and soaring voices.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is running through November 25. Performance Days and Times: Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; No performances on Mondays; Exceptions: Added 2 p.m. performance on Wednesday, November 21; No 8 p.m. performance on Thanksgiving Day, November 22.
Ticket Prices: range from $99 to $285 (Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at (213) 972-4400, or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at The Music Center. For Group Sales call (213) 972-7231. For Deaf community information visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/ACCESS.