BWW Review: Profound and Poignant, DEAR EVAN HANSEN Takes Hold of Nashville's Collective Heart at TPAC
Ben Levi Ross Leads Exceptional Ensemble of Actors
Profoundly moving and endlessly poignant - yet somehow laugh out loud funny at times it is most unexpected - Dear Evan Hansen, the Tony Award-winning musical that sharply reflects society's fascination with popularity and "fitting in" with a decidedly contemporary flavor, has settled into Andrew Jackson Hall at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center for an eight-performance run that heralds the start of the 2019-20 Broadway at TPAC series. And judging from the audience's response on opening night (along with the extended standing ovation that greeted the show's eight-member cast at the end of their performance), it's a particularly auspicious start to what promises to be a particularly impressive season.
Led by Ben Levi Ross in the title role, Dear Evan Hansen - with a book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul - seems as current as any musical could possibly be, evoking the tone and personality of these weird times in which we live while delivering a universal story that resonates deeply with audiences of all ages, regardless of their connection to the world of social media and 24/7 exposure/coverage that dominates pop culture in the first decade of the 21st Century.
Levenson's book is squarely on-target and evocative of the social climate, focusing on the misadventures of Evan, an anti-hero 17-year-old high school senior whose mental challenges and social ineptitude have determined his role in the dramatic convention defined by high school. As Evan struggles to fit in - even as he strives to maintain his grip on reality - he finds himself caught up in a prototypically current miasma of social media mayhem not of his own choosing, but most certainly of his own making because of his desire to be accepted by his peers and to achieve the kind of life he's always dreamed about.
While the omnipresence of social media and the constant scrutiny from virtually everyone else in the world seems the making of our current predilection for life lived beyond our means - with whatever ramifications that entails - it is in reality only more of the same. High school has always been a microcosm of our society as a whole and with everyone constantly tethered to their cel phones, posting and preening on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter (does anyone actually "do" Twitter anymore?), Tumblr (since they've outlawed porn, nobody does Tumblr anymore), Reddit, Bumble, Cluster and the appropriately named Fishbowl, the journey from freshman year to graduation has become even more complicated and designed to foster envy, lust, greed and all the other seven deadly sins.
Evan becomes caught up in a maelstrom of social speculation when a classmate commits suicide and his parents discover a letter among his belongings to "Dear Evan Hansen" in which the writer pours out his misgivings and concerns. When confronted, Evan attempts to explain that the letter was written by himself to himself as part of an assignment from his therapist to help heighten his self-awareness and acceptance, the dead boy's grieving parents refuse to hear his protests, finding solace in the fact that their sullen and diffident son Connor (whose name is written in huge letters across the cast of Evan's broken arm) apparently had one friend in which to confide prior to his untimely, yet not wholly unexpected, death. Evan, in a remarkable show of empathy toward the parents and the sister (Zoe, upon whom he has a massive crush anyway) of the boy, sincerely thinks he is helping the family deal with their horrific loss and abiding grief.
Before long, as these things are wont to do in the age of social media, Evan's "friendship" with Connor becomes something of a cause celebre and when a video of Evan delivering a moving eulogy during a school assembly goes viral, all hell breaks loose and the event/episode or whatever you want to call it becomes larger than all the characters combined, taking on far greater significance and increasing in importance at an exponential pace.
Farfetched? Perhaps. Unbelievable? Not at all. That's why the story in Dear Evan Hansen resonates so deeply among its audience and why the songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are uniformly revered. Pasek and Paul, who might be called the Rodgers and Hammerstein of their generation when one considers the range of their musical theater works, so accurately and discerningly reflect the tenor of the times and the emotions of their characters that it should come as no surprise whatsoever that they have drawn legions of new fans to the theater - fans heretofore unacknowledged and under-represented in the canon of modern musical theater. "For Forever" and "Words Fail" still pack an emotional wallop more than twelves hours past the final curtain, while the anthemic "You Will Be Found" brings tears pouring from my eyes as I recall its impact onstage as the climax of a shattering Act One that leads seamlessly into a powerful second act that is breathlessly emotional.
Dear Evan Hansen has become such a part of the cultural zeitgeist - its reputation grew so immense prior to its Broadway opening that it seemed assured of success on the main stem and its subsequent Tony Award wins seemed destined even before its opening night - that the show may have even suffered from a backlash among the theaterati and would-be critics who hope to make a name for themselves by dissenting from the flood of laudatory praise that the show has won justifiably.
Dear Evan Hansen is superb theater, no matter how you look at it, and its incisive consideration of contemporary social customs will have far-reaching impact for generations to come. The characters - Evan, Connor, Zoe and their parents and schoolmates Jared and Alana - are richly drawn and multi-dimensional (even if, at times, one might think them a tad stereotypical and created by rote) - are authentic, as if plucked from among your own circle of friends and "close acquaintances." Levenson's book is beautifully written and sharply focused and anyone watching should be able to catch glimpses of people, small moments of life that are seemingly taken from their own lives.
Dear Evan Hansen is heartrendingly genuine and if you leave the theater without residual feeling (whether it's sadness, sorrow, happiness or rage), you must have fallen asleep or have no heart. There is no other way to explain your lack of empathy for these people. Chief among them, of course, is Ben Levi Ross who embodies the eponymous lead character with wit, charm and honesty that is at once hard-to-quantify or describe, and yet somehow you must do so in a way that is equal to the depth of his heartfelt performance. Ross commands the stage with his unstoppable presence, providing a strong central figure with which the audience may identify, and his ability to express emotion with such brutal frankness is jaw-dropping. His Evan is intense and self-centered, to be certain, but he's also accessible and sweetly appealing, and he performs Evan's songs with consummate skill and awesome talent.
Jane Pfitsch is pitch-perfect as Evan's hard-working, often absent but always loving mother Heidi and she effortlessly portrays a mother's anguish upon discovery that she hardly knows her son. Broadway veterans Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar are ideally cast as Connor's heartbroken parents, Cynthia and Larry Murphy. Noll, who we first saw some 20 years ago during the pre-Broadway tour of Jekyll & Hyde and whose career we have followed with ardor since, is nothing less than spectacular, while the handsome and thoroughly committed Lazar gives a heartbreaking performance as a man loathe to put his own emotions on display.
Maggie McKenna, who notably took on the title role in the world premiere of the stage musical version of Muriel's Wedding, is the very picture of teenaged ennui and tentative rebellion as Zoe and her fledgling relationship with Evan helps to underscore the vulnerability of both characters in very trying times. Jared Goldsmith is terrific as Evan's lone "family friend" Jared, who shows deference to Evan to ensure his auto insurance premium is paid by his parents and Phoebe Koyabe plays classmate Alana with an optimistic mien that belies her own struggles to fit in and she becomes something of a conduit for audience members who find the show's premise - in fact, the whole premise of Evan's role in the social media fiasco that unfolds - hard to fathom.
Finally, Marrick Smith is wonderfully cast as the difficult-to-love Connor Murphy, who provides a sounding board or, perhaps more accurately, a reflection to Evan as he struggles to maintain his own identity in a fractured world of his own making.
Much of the production's visceral impact is due to David Korin's spectacular scenic design and the projections designed by Peter Nigrini that provide the perfect backdrop for the action playing out onstage in a world of visuals inspired by social media and our total dependence on our electronic devices. Emily Rebholz's costume design is particularly important as it helps to define the characters as well as the setting and time of the show, while Japhy Weideman's lighting design illuminates not only the physical environs of TPAC's Jackson Hall, but the world of Evan and his friends and family with impressive results.
Danny Mefford's choreography is organic to the proceedings - almost to the point that you'll forget the movement of the characters is indeed staged and not just their everyday steps. Garret Healey's musical direction is inspired, and he conducts his onstage musicians (located just above the stage floor at house left) with professionalism and passion.
Tickets for the rest of the TPAC run of Dear Evan Hansen are at a premium, but rest assured it's well worth the effort (and the ticket price) for your chance to revel in musical theater magic. Don't miss it.
Dear Evan Hansen. Book by Steve Levensono. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Music supervision, orchestrations and additional arrangements by Alex Lacamoire. Presented by Broadway at TPAC. Through Sunday, September 15. For further details, go to www.TPAC.org or call (615) 782-4040 for tickets. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).