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BWW Review: Through Tears, DEAR EVAN HANSEN Wows at OC's Segerstrom Center

A powerful, emotionally-riveting, dynamically-staged original stage musical, DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a truly incredible, phenomenal show that I happily admit---in just a few years of its existence---has quickly become one of my favorite Broadway musicals of all time. Not only does it feature gorgeous, memorable songs from Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it also has a simple but notably layered and impactful book by Steven Levenson that encourages deeper, meaningful discourse long after the end of the show. Even more remarkable is that the show presents a troubled but empathetic title character that demands so much from the actor tasked to bring him to life that you are left in awe at its sheer tenacity and brilliance.

From its depiction of darker teen issues to its portraits of parental anguish in the era of social media saturation, DEAR EVAN HANSEN perceptibly paints timeless themes in a very savvy 21st Century way. This contemporary, very of-the-moment theatrical wonder is also one of those rare stage shows that fittingly exists in the very era it so vividly depicts.

Will this show still reverberate a decade from now? Very likely---because despite the framework of the online/social media world we are mired in now, DEAR EVAN HANSEN's motifs of teen angst and debilitating loneliness will always be timelessly resonant regardless of age or background, particularly for those of us who have suffered or are still struggling with social anxiety, low self-esteem, or perhaps even a combination of both. For many, much of this musical drama will ring too achingly relatable.

So it's no surprise that DEAR EVAN HANSEN has become one of the most beloved shows to come out of Broadway in recent years---not for any spectacle or visual splendor but for its relevant and resonating themes, its absorbing story, and the genuine, raw emotions it conveys that cut right through the heart of every current or former young person who has ever experienced being isolated, rejected, friendless, or alone---and feeling as if they had no one to turn to for help or for a caring ear.

But, of course, the best instant indicator that a stage show has emotionally impacted its audience is when all you hear during the show's quietly poignant penultimate song---a soothing, but gut wrenching lullaby from a desperate mother to a heartbroken son---are multiple sounds of sobs and sniffles from rapt, emotionally-spent audience members reacting to the outpouring of feels from characters that have gone through a very trying set of circumstances.

I certainly contributed to those chorus of tears myself during the show's recent well-received and wildly applauded opening night performance at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where the Tony Award-winning musical's first national tour continues its much-too-brief two-week engagement through January 13, 2019 in Costa Mesa.

Yes, my "ugly cry" tears flowed early and often, even as I watched a young man engage in something pretty bad (well, morally ambiguous, at best)---despite motivations that may have come from a good-hearted place... or were they?

That enigmatic quality of its troubled title character is exactly why DEAR EVAN HANSEN has multiple layers to its complexity that earns our care and attention. But when all is said and done, it is this character's journey from unseen nobody to popular online hero to healing human being that provides the fuel for an ultimately satisfying story.

Like many of us Broadway fans confined to the West Coast, my first exposure to DEAR EVAN HANSEN---besides online clips from its lauded pre-Broadway productions at Arena Stage in 2015 and at Second Stage Theatre in 2016---was via the ear-candy-filled Original Broadway Cast album that featured some of the most richly melodious new Broadway songs I have heard in quite some time, courtesy of songwriting team Pasek and Paul, whose body of work includes A CHRISTMAS STORY - THE MUSICAL and DOGFIGHT (a personal fave of mine), as well as songs from movie musicals The Greatest Showman and the Oscar-winning La La Land.

Even without narrative context, just hearing Tony winning phenom Ben Platt and the cast sing through these emotionally-tinged songs aching with pathos, pain, and longing were enough to force tears during my first listen.

Multiple spins of the cast album later (including an Evan-inspired Halloween costume), the just-launched national tour finally arrived in nearby Los Angeles for a lengthy sit-down at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre in the Fall of 2018. What I witnessed then was absolutely fantastic, meeting all of my long-held expectations while deeply affecting me to the core. Yes, the tears flowed even more profoundly, but beyond these raw emotions, what I experienced was a well-balanced, well-crafted, and creatively surprising stage musical that not only affects you emotionally but, in a way, affects you spiritually as well.

Even better... Hearing the songs live for the first time as part of a narrative rather than just stand-alone recorded songs on a cast album made them sound even more incredible. I have to say, just seeing these songs---beautifully orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire---come to life on stage is itself worth the price of seeing the full production. To finally see the context behind the songs made the experience all the more special.

The acting ensemble---a mixture of young vibrant new talent and seasoned stage vets---were so superb and so voraciously committed to their roles that you'd think they've done this show for a decade. And under Michael Greif's sharp direction, DEAR EVAN HANSEN is nothing short of a musical theater lover's ultimate treat.

Fast forward to 2019 and the show's OC debut replicates that same overall excellence I enjoyed just a few months before. In fact, for me, my second helping of DEAR EVAN HANSEN proved even better than the first. Experiencing the show again amplified deeper subtleties in the show that I didn't quite catch the first time, while reiterating again just how touching, groundbreaking, and monumentally significant it is as a musical theater piece that future generations will embrace just as much as current audiences have. Levenson's thoughtful, approachable book---steeped in millennial speak without puzzling other demos---also makes the musical seem quaintly universal in scope.

And then, of course, there's Ben Levi Ross in the title role.

An awards-worthy, powerhouse of a performance that keeps you absolutely mesmerized from start to finish, Ross brilliantly essays the role with a gamut of highs and lows appropriate to a character that suffers from debilitating social anxiety, depression, and, perhaps, even an more dire mental condition triggered by a past trauma that leaves him unable to fully engage in normal human interactions. It helps, too, that Ross is also blessed with a gorgeous singing voice that can be both angelic and ferocious, depending on the current mood of the moment. From his vocally-impressive opening "Waving Through A Window" and his lush take on "For Forever" to his knockout devastating "Words Fail" that left no dry eye in the theater, Ross---like his Tony winning predecessor Platt---is a truly gifted actor/singer.

Endearing yet captivating, Ross' clever acting choices are also effectively palpable, from apt subtleties of shakes and tics to overt breakdowns, which is perhaps why his smile---seen few and far between---is a welcome sight to see whenever it dares to appear. It may be hard to believe, but in just the first few minutes, the audience already forms an emotional attachment to his Evan, allowing us to empathize and care for his character's best interests throughout the entirety of the musical. We ache when he aches.

(On a side note, my first experience seeing the show in Los Angeles was to purposely see it with the Evan "alternate" Stephen Christopher Anthony---who plays the title role during matinees and Sunday evening performances. He is also quite spectacular with his version of the role so you will be just as impressed and delighted should you happen to catch his appearances)

For those still unfamiliar with DEAR EVAN HANSEN, the story revolves around Evan, a sweet, smart, but rather awkward young man who suffers from extreme social anxiety and who's about to start his senior year of high school. We notice immediately that his left arm is broken and is in a cast, the apparent aftermath of a tumble from a tree over the summer.

Clearly a shy loner, Evan's psychiatrist has prescribed him a unique daily assignment as part of his treatment: to write out formal letters to himself---hence the show's title---as a way of outwardly expressing his feelings and to give himself positive affirmations on why that particular day "is going to be a good day."

Evan lives in a modest home with his overwhelmed mom Heidi (a stirring Jessica Phillips), a busy single parent working multiple shifts as a way to earn enough to live on, while also trying her cautious best to connect with her detached son whom she clearly thinks has problems. Heidi, for her part, treads lightly while reminding Evan of his letter-writing assignment daily, hoping that the exercise helps. But Evan sees it as another glaring reminder of his obvious flaws, and thus seems apt to just push her away with every nudging suggestion or encouraging pep talk.

Meanwhile across town in a more affluent neighborhood is the home of the Murphy family, a tense household headed up by Larry and Cynthia Murphy (the excellent Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll, respectively) and their high school-aged kids Zoe (Maggie McKenna) and Connor (Marrick Smith). This particular morning involves Cynthia protesting that son Connor is too high and intoxicated to go to school, much to the disgust of their oft-ignored daughter Zoe who can't stand her brother or his rebellious nature. Larry seems more concerned about the traffic to work than he is about the current state of his son---someone Larry has given up trying to connect with, it seems, a while ago.

Unsurprisingly, Evan's first day is yet another reminder of his outcast status, exacerbating his discomfort with being around other people. As he tries in vain to get people to sign his cast (another suggestion from mom), he is barely acknowledged by everyone around him, including his crush Zoe---that is until she sees her brother knock Evan down on the floor. But Evan scares her off anyway with his awkward, rapid-fire speech mannerisms. In song, Evan expresses that he has gotten used to hiding in the shadows.

Devastated and feeling hopeless, Evan hides out in the computer lab and composes another truthful letter to himself filled with feelings of sadness and emptiness. He wonders if anyone would even notice if he just disappeared. He prints the letter out, unaware that Connor is also in the room. Connor surprises him with a brief interaction and even signs his cast. But the pleasantries end when Connor reads part of the letter and is angered by its mention of his sister, thinking the note is meant to mock Connor.

Days pass, and it turns out that Evan's interaction with Connor was to be their last. The school is shocked with the news that Connor had taken his own life days before. Connor's devastated parents are now convinced that somehow Evan was a secret close friend of their son's, due to the fact that they found Evan's letter in Connor's pocket---assuming it was actually Connor's suicide letter addressed to his "friend" Evan. Unable to process their loss, the Murphys find some solace in knowing that their son had a friend he at least tried to apparently reach out to before he took his own life.

Thus begins Evan's close involvement with the Murphys, which sees him spending more and more time with them via dinners, after school conversations, and even the occasional sleepovers---all, of course, predicated on a terrible lie that he chooses to continue (and elaborate) for, apparently, the Murphy's benefit. As expected, the more time Evan spends with the Murphys---which seems to be a welcome new activity in the recluse's life---his lies about his relationship with Connor begin to snowball and becomes more and more complex, much to the rapt fascination of Connor's parents.

BWW Review: Through Tears, DEAR EVAN HANSEN Wows at OC's Segerstrom Center
Marrick Smith, Ben Levi Ross, Phoebe Koyabe
and the cast of DEAR EVAN HANSEN

To continue this ruse, Evan fabricates an entire friendship history for the Murphys, still thinking that the lie is justified because it is bringing them some healing and comfort. He even enlists the help of his sarcastic, openly insulting frenemy Jared (the very funny Jared Goldsmith)---a "family friend" who mocks Evan viciously yet helps him out anyway---by creating a fake "secret" email account that is supposed to hold the back-and-forth correspondence between Connor and Evan.

For the moment, the convoluted fabrication works, convincing the appreciative Murphys---and, eventually, even the skeptical Zoe---that Connor and Evan were best friends that confided in one another, and that Evan attempted his best to help Connor. Slowly, the Murphys begin treating Evan like he's part of their family, which Evan happily embraces. Back at his real home, Evan becomes more and more distant with his mom, who at the moment can't compete with the affections showered on him by the Murphys.

Soon the news quickly spreads at school of Evan and Connor's alleged close friendship, despite a huge lack of visual evidence from the past. Evan is noticing that he's now someone people know of---a sensation he's not used to. Even Jared, who openly chastised in the past, is seeking Evan out to be more involved.

School busybody Alana Beck (the terrific Phoebe Koyabe), who claims to have known Connor also (but, in reality, in a laughably minuscule way) offers her sympathies and any kind "help" should Evan need it. Eventually, Evan does ask for assistance in the form of the creation of "The Connor Project" a grassroots campaign dedicated to honor the memory of Connor.

During his speech during Connor's memorial assembly, the once socially awkward, anxiety-prone Evan somehow becomes an online viral sensation, as thousands of viewers on various social media platforms connected deeply and empathized with his and the Connor Project's empowering message: that no one has to "disappear" or ever feel "alone."

On the surface, Evan's questionable actions seem motivated by frivolous things. Perhaps it's a way to get closer to a crush. Perhaps it's to gain affections from a more attentive family now aching to fill a huge void and to heal from a heartbreaking tragedy. Or maybe it is to paint himself into someone that others can finally see is capable of being someone's trusted friend and confidante---not the lonely loser he's always seen himself to be and what he perceives others think of him.

What he does allow to gain traction is the idea that his actions are all for the sake of his "friend" Connor and for Connor's family, who were clearly already in need of healing and comfort long before Connor's death. It's hard to argue that Evan's appearance in the Murphy's lives didn't have some positive impact, particularly in how Larry and Cynthia deal with each other and how they deal with their daughter Zoe, who spent most of her life in the shadow of her older brother who seemingly got the most attention by default.

The challenge presented in DEAR EVAN HANSEN, then, is whether or not audiences are able to buy into Evan's elaborate scheme, and for the most part we do, particularly because of how his lies sooth the fragility of the Murphys who are clearly in dire need to see their son in a better light. Evan also, in a way, wins us over because of how his "stories" gradually changes him into a more open, communicative person with enough confidence to even convince Zoe to like him, surface tics and all---a stark contrast to the young man who previously never for a moment saw any value to his existence. So, it begs the question... Is it purely selfish or selfless? Should one vice replace another?

I suppose as a work of fiction, it is easy to "forgive" Evan, and we even hurt for him when his lies begin to crush him as it grows and grows to an unmanageable size---which we all know will eventually happen.

Of course, it could also be argued that a lot of other people benefited from Even's lie as well. Jared, who was at first adamant about not being friends with Evan eventually sees him as relief for his own loneliness he'd rather not admit and wholeheartedly ensconces himself into Evan's schemes. Alana, too, is a secretly lonely, virtually usurping control of the Connor Project from Evan and, perhaps, even rides his coattails to internet fame.

Social Media naturally plays a key role in the musical, both as a means for good and bad. It's true what they say that introverts become less so online, perhaps because interacting online provides an automatic detachment---a virtual electronic barrier that's not there when dealing with people face-to-face in the real world. It's just the kind of place that someone who suffers from social anxiety like Evan can thrive in, which he certainly does once the Connor Project takes off. In fact, it actually changes the way he acts offline as well... much more personable, approachable, and capable of standing up for himself. But just as it is intoxicating to be a sensation online, it is also, as we all know too well in recent years, a safe place for people comfortable enough to spew vitriol---something Evan learns all too vividly later on as well.

Much of what keeps DEAR EVAN HANSEN from spinning away into mere melodrama is how it thoughtfully deals with not only the title character's conflicts but also how the adults in the room are dealing with the events at hand, which is why I feel this musical resonates regardless of age. Yes, it's not a shocking fact: being a parent is a tough job, sometimes harrowing, and sometimes even a little thankless. DEAR EVAN HANSEN does an admirable job of presenting the very relatable need of parents to connect and do right by their children, even if they frustratingly refuse to return the favor. On the flip side, the show also posits the query of whether kids today would ever be able to distinguish the nagging and/or attentiveness of their parents as poorly delivered means of affection and love. Is it possible in the age of online interactivity to even have an honest parent-child conversation anymore?

But beyond its riveting storyline, marvelous songs, and superb ensemble cast, DEAR EVAN HANSEN is also a marvel in modern theatricality. David Korin's minimalist scenic design---a dazzling maze of electronic panels and mini-rooms accentuated beautifully by Peter Nigrini's projected pixels and Japhy Weideman's dynamic lighting---is a thematic reflection of the social media-saturated world of our characters. Perhaps as a nod to what we all see online, many of the show's scenes are framed and composed like curated social media posts, as if to plainly reiterate that there is more to what's going on beyond what one sees flashed within the borders of a computer or phone screen.

Elsewhere, Danny Mefford's choreography provides a pleasing traffic pattern of modern and lyrical movements. Emily Rebholz's costumes effectively reflect each character's personalities, particularly Evan who goes through a subtle sartorial upgrade throughout the musical. Nevin Steinberg's sound design envelopes the show in the pings and notifications of everyday life as we know it today.

And besides Ross, his co-stars also each provide such humanity, grace, and, most enjoyably, beautiful vocals. Lazar and Noll are both excellent as Connor's conflicted parents, themselves filed with a detached angst and sadness that allows for bits of joy as the show progresses. McKenna's initially ornery Zoe also blossoms into the kind of girl Evan could believably woo (and return those affections back), and the pair display a palpable ease. Also blessed with lovely singing voice, McKenna's heartbreak comes through in her parts of "Requiem" and her swoon-y duet with Ross, "Only Us" is sublime.

Goldsmith's hilariously foul-mouthed, comic relief role is a welcome break from all the angst, while Koyabe's Alana is a stunning portrait of a girl who also wants to be seen, even though her constant in-your-face presence seems to suggest she already is, which just goes to show just how skewed our perceptions are of people. Her role actually got my attention much more on this go-round, and it felt like a pleasant new discovery.The intriguing Smith thoughtfully shrouds his Connor with an air of mystery that's appropriate for the character. He winningly joins Goldsmith and Ross in the entertaining "Sincerely, Me" that had the audience cheering.

And finally, as Heidi, Evan's mom, Phillips is the show's emotionally-charged secret weapon. Her beautiful, carefully measured portrait of a mom just trying to do her best is one a lot of folks can truly connect with, and she gives the role an empathetic seriousness that carries throughout the show. I was especially moved in her later scene meeting Connor's parents---where her puzzlement quickly turns into resentment then to heartbreak. I can willingly admit that her "So Big, So Small" just about broke me.

Once again, I cannot express enough how extraordinary and, dare I say, important DEAR EVAN HANSEN is in the landscape of modern musical theater---not only for its universal themes but also its gorgeously integrated songs that will undoubtedly become chanted anthems for years to come.

In a world where we all work hard in presenting a curated version of ourselves online for others' consumption, how revolutionary it must be to just be your authentic self. If you have ever felt as if you are an outcast, unusual, strange, or even a person that's unpopular or even not well-liked, then you will surely find a kinship---or at the very least, a caring empathy---towards this musical and, most particularly, its title character... a young kid who may not want to be noticed, but may still want to be seen ... and to know that they exist, and that that existence matters.

----

DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Book by Steven Levenson. Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
Musical Supervision, Orchestrations, and Additional Arrangements by Alex Lacamoire.
Musical Direction by Austin Cook. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Directed by Michael Greif.

Photos from the National Tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of the National Tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, January 13, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

There will be a digital lottery accepting entries 48 hours prior to the next performance and will be accepted until 9 a.m. the day before the performance. Fans who have been selected will be notified daily via email and can then purchase up to two (2) tickets at $25 each.

** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ **

READ MY "BEST OF 2018" PICKS HERE.

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