BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN Delivers Caring and a Sense of Community to Ahmanson Audiences
Dear Evan Hansen/book by Steven Levenson/music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul/directed by Michael Greif/choreographed by Danny Mefford/musical director: Austin Cook/Ahmanson Theatre/through November 25
Have you ever told a lie or fabricated a story that made you feel important and needed in the lives of others? And one that brought happiness to those other people creating a better sense of community? Such is the premise for Dear Evan Hansen, the winner of six 2016 Tony Awards including Best Musical. Currently at the Ahmanson through November 25, Dear Evan Hansen is a big box office hit. Splendidly directed by Michael Greif, the cast of eight turn in indelibly gripping performances.
Based on an incident that music composer Benj Pasek experienced in high school, the story takes us to a contemporary school scenario in which Evan (Ben Levi Ross) is suffering from social anxiety. His therapist has suggested that he write a letter to himself every day to make himself feel secure and connected to the world around him. This letter writing is supported by his mother Heidi (Jessica Phillips) a single mom who has been forced to work overtime and go to school in order to support herself and her son. The neighboring Murphy family's two children Connor (Marrick Smith) and Zoe (Maggie McKenna) are troubled, he on drugs and she vehemently opposed to his selfish and rude behavior. Parents Cynthia (Chritiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar) are at odds over Connor and barely sustain a marriage. It is important to note that the family is wealthy in contrast to the middle class Hansens who must work in order to move forward.
Evan, carrying a huge crush for Zoe, attempts to befriend Connor to no avail. When he prints out the letter he wrote to himself on the school lab's printer and Connor finds it, he misconstrues Evan's intent, puts it in his pocket and storms out berating Evan for any involvement with his sister. Connor commits suicide and his parents find the letter in his pocket. They immediately think that Connor wrote it to Evan and that they had a close friendship. Evan's playful friend Jared (Jared Goldsmith) convinces Evan to go along with the parents' belief that he and Connor were friends. What results is a new role for Evan, building his self confidence and a great relief for Cynthia and Larry, who find comfort in the fact that Connor had reached out. Zoe, too, becomes genuinely interested in Evan, who lies to her about Connor caring for her. Everyone feels ultimately better during a time of crisis except Heidi, who Evan has kept in the dark about the whole Connor incident. Evan, Jared and Alana (Phoebe Koyabe) initiate the Connor Project to keep his memory alive, and Jared helps Evan create emails between Connor and Evan to further support the fact that they had a secret relationship...not gay related, just a friendship. The emails, however, have loopholes. When they go viral, Evan faces losing everything. The lie will no longer sustain him, but will undoubtedly destroy his newfound friendships, especially the love that he feels for Zoe.
A very intriguing fact in Steven Levenson's book is that Evan broke his arm during the summer. He wears a cast from the top of the play, and Connor, though seemingly opposed, is the only classmate who signs it. Evan concocts a lyrical story about visits to an apple orchard where he and Connor spent time and that he fell out of a tree there, causing the broken arm. What we gather is that in reality Evan tried to commit suicide. His mother had not provided enough quality time for him in the absence of his father. A great stage device is making Connor alive in Evan's memory. He becomes a breathing character onstage in scenes with Evan and Jared. Connor's presence is a brilliant choice by Levenson, not only to help bring the fabricated story to full fruition, but to give Evan a sense of self- empowerment and self-esteem. At the end, Connor serves as Evan's conscience and tells him what to do in order to set the record straight with all concerned.
There is a bittersweet ending for Zoe and Evan but as years pass, all is forgotten and forgiven, allowing Evan to see his actions as more positive. After all, he did bring so much happiness to the Murphy family and put himself at the core as a "responsible" caring human being.
Pasek and Paul have created a lovely score that is quite sweeping. Its interior monologues for the characters help the audience to understand their dilemmas more strongly, moving the action forward as a good musical score should. Particularly poetic is "For Forever" that lingers in the mind as you exit the theatre.
Under Greif's smooth pacing and staging, the entire ensemble are wondrous to behold. Ross is amazing (sharing the heavy role with Stephen Christopher Anthony), riveting our attention from the very beginning.. Phillips and Noll are wonderful as the diametrically opposed mothers. Phillips' eleventh hour tune "So Big/So Small" is an emotional knockout. Lazar makes his baseball glove scene really click. Koyabe and Goldsmith add wonderful comedic touches. McKenna makes Zoe sweet and adorable.
It is a treat to see the eight-piece orchestra onstage conducted by Austin Cook. They are on the second level of the set. Graphic projections by Peter Nigrini are shown consistently against the scrim in front. For me at least, they are almost too overpowering. It is difficult to follow their complexity, except for the emails. I would prefer to see the engrossing story unfold on a bare bones set.
Don't miss Dear Evan Hansen while it plays at the Ahmanson through November 25! From what I have been told, the run is pretty much sold out, but try, try, try to get tickets if you can. You will not be disappointed.
(photo credit: Matthew Murphy)