BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN Taps Into Teen Loneliness And Despair But Delivers Hope At Boston Opera House
DEAR EVAN HANSEN, the 2017 Tony Award-winning musical currently at the Boston Opera House through August 4, is that rare teen angst story that neither trivializes nor over dramatizes the challenges of coming of age in modern America. Rather, this at times funny, at times penetrating, and always tender exploration of alienated youth draws us deeply into the world of an anxious young man who feels like he's forever on the outside looking in.
Abandoned by his father when he was seven, Evan (a sensational Ben Levi Ross) lives with his hard-working mom, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), who tries valiantly to provide him with a stable home and emotional support in the few spare hours between night shifts and college courses. When alone, which is often, Evan is either writing letters to himself as prescribed by his therapist or tap, tap, tapping on the windows of his smart phone or tablet. When one of his letters addressed to "Dear Evan Hansen" inadvertently falls into the hands of Cynthia and Larry Murphy (Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar) after the death of their son, Connor (Marrick Smith), the grieving parents assume that Connor had written it to Evan.
This simple mistake begins as an innocent means by which the Murphys can feel closer to their troubled son, but soon the uncorrected misconception spirals out of control as Evan also finds solace in the lie. Once the "relationship" between Evan and Connor goes viral, social media takes over and traps Evan in its web. Lies are compounded and lives are disrupted. Eventually Evan is left to face his own inner demons that can only be exorcised by one simple act of personal courage. He must turn his gaze inward and face the truth he sees there.
Librettist Steven Levenson and composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have crafted an absolutely stunning musical that uses the world of social media to shed light on the deeply felt isolation of many of today's teens. Evan, Connor, and the rest of the young people in DEAR EVAN HANSEN are not clichéd stereotypes. They are complex individuals whose quiet desperation drives them to either retreat from or connect with each other, in both positive and negative ways. Parents, too, are multi-dimensional, a welcome change from so many teen-oriented stories that paint adults with one thin, villainous brush.
Book and score weave together perfectly, drawing the audience deeper and deeper into the lives and psyches of each character. Mothers Heidi and Cynthia show us immediately how difficult parenting can be in their plaintive duet, "Anybody Have a Map?" The defiant "Requiem" reveals how differently Cynthia, Larry, and their daughter, Zoe (Maggie McKenna), deal with their grief. "So Big/So Small" is a heartbreaking but also hopeful awakening for Heidi as she begins truly to understand the depth of her son's anguish.
Ultimately, though, the full power of DEAR EVAN HANSEN is ignited by the remarkably nuanced performance of the young Ben Levi Ross. With a mellifluous voice reminiscent of Josh Groban's and an instinct for character development that can not be taught, Ross is quite simply magnificent. He makes a quirky, needy, and ever more deceitful misfit truly sympathetic. His nervous tics and self-effacing humor are totally endearing. He captivates the audience with an underlying pain and longing that is palpable yet tightly held.
In the brilliant "Waving Through a Window," Ross builds his loneliness and despair into a defiant cry to be seen and heard. With each new verse and refrain, he takes us deeper and deeper into his soul. In "Words Fail," Ross finally lets go of his defenses. When he ultimately collapses in his mother's arms, the audience wants to embrace him, too.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN masterfully draws the viewer into Evan's world through the clouded window of social media. It sheds light on today's loneliness while also offering a beacon of hope. It is that rare new musical that speaks to its generation while also transcending it. DEAR EVAN HANSEN is truly illuminating.
(PHOTOS COURTESY OF BROADWAY IN BOSTON)
Book by Steven Levenson; music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; directed by Michael Grief; choreography by Danny Mefford; music supervision, orchestrations and additional arrangements by Alex Lacamoire; scenic design, David Korins; projection design, Peter Nigrini; costume design, Emily Rebholz; lighting design, Japhy Weideman; sound design, Nevin Steinberg; hair designer, David Brian Brown; music director, Austin Cook; vocal arrangements and additional arrangements, Justin Paul; production stage manager, David Lober
Cast in Alphabetical Order:
Jared Kleinman, Jared Goldsmith; Alana Beck, Phoebe Koyabe; Larry Murphy, Aaron Lazar; Zoe Murphy, Maggie McKenna; Cynthia Murphy, Christiane Noll; Heidi Hansen, Jessica Phillips; Evan Hansen, Ben Levi Ross (Stephen Christopher Anthony for Thursday, Saturday and Sunday matinees); Connor Murphy, Marrick Smith
Performances and Tickets:
Now through August 4, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston, MA; tickets are available at the Box Office or through Ticketmaster online at www.BroadwayInBoston.com or by phone at 800-982-2787.