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BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN Shows Orlando Why It Rocked Broadway

BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN Shows Orlando Why It Rocked Broadway

The thing I like most about Dear Evan Hansen is that it's driven by story - an original, riveting, plot-forward story.

Evan Hansen is an awkward high school kid struggling to connect with his peers, so his overworked mom sends him to therapy, where he's told to type letters to himself.

"Dear Evan Hansen," he writes. "...Would anyone notice if I just disappeared tomorrow?"

As high school fate would have it, depressive stoner/bully Connor Murphy is in the computer lab when Evan prints his letter. Long story short, Connor runs off with the letter and then commits suicide later that day. The Murphys find Evan's letter and mistake it for Connor's suicide note, assuming he must have meant his last words for Evan. But Connor barely knew Evan. So why?

That's the setup for an elaborate story about the snowball of deception in the digital age, a new-age Nothing But the Truth. It unfolds believingly and compellingly, enhanced by characters who have competing interests and make questionable choices accordingly, and yet you understand their motivation.

The story doesn't always work. A major plot point involves the need to raise money for Connor's remembrance, but the script repeatedly reminds us that his wealthy family could easily cover the bill. This begs the question: why don't they? We're also given less insight into what Connor's family knew about him than I would like, but then that's part of what makes the plot functional. And it's functional enough.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN has the easy, broad likeability of something like Love, Simon or "This Is Us"... and all the heavy-chested emotion too. But it's less manipulative and monologue-y than NBC's cry-at-all-costs drama. High school students will live and breathe this story, but adults can be just as moved by its upbeat perspective on decidedly downbeat life affairs.

The show was an instant smash when it opened on Broadway in December 2016, making a household name out of the original Evan, Ben Platt. The national tour, now at Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando, faithfully recreates New York's innovative iPhone-inspired staging, complete with an orchestra that floats over the stage instead of playing in a pit.

There's terrific acting in the touring cast, even if the singing voices waver from Platt to flat.

We get an incredibly convincing Evan in Ben Levi Ross (previously an understudy for the same role on Broadway). He interprets the character as nervous, nerdy, and unknowingly funny. It's an excellent performance.

But it's Evan's mom, played by Jessica Phillips, who really blew me away. Phillips is likeable and real, her distinctive speaking voice a good fit for the affection and exasperation she's asked to convey, often in the same breath.

There was an odd phenomenon on opening night at Dr. Phillips Center, where each of the show's eight actors bottomed out on notes or veered into a voice break or an airy delivery despite clearly having voices that are capable and full. Maybe it was first-night-in-town sound mixing struggles, or maybe they just don't have consistency down pat.

Part of the problem might be Pasek and Paul, the show's songwriters. As a duo, they're leading the charge to put pop on Broadway. While there are some very good numbers in Dear Evan Hansen, these are no-doubt-about-it pop songs, as though they're looking for airplay in an alternate universe where showtunes play on FM. Musical theatre performers don't always make a good match for pop. There were times when I suspected the actors were trying to modify their otherwise-able voices to fit the songs' radio-ready stylings.

Pasek and Paul are the same writers who brought us the by-the-numbers soundtrack for The Greatest Showman and the sometimes-too-quiet stylings of La La Land. Dear Evan Hansen is guilty of those same sins. There are moments that sound like an American Idol finale song ("You Will Be Found"... right after the break).

But there are just as many terrific musical moments. "Anybody Have a Map?" is a rousing and flavorful kickoff to the show. That's followed immediately by "Waving Through a Window," which could just as easily have been the next single from A Great Big World (not necessarily a bad thing) but which also has some of the show's best lyrics. Its title is an allusion to smartphones, but it's also metaphorical in a broader sense. The show's meditations on what it means for young people to stumble in the age of social media are provocative, especially as audience members walk away debating the ethics of it all. The show doesn't try to make up your mind for you, nor does it wrap everything up in a bow (not a tidy one, anyway).

DEAR EVAN HANSEN is more than just commentary and catchy hooks. Its greatest achievement is the message it imparts: you are important, you have something to bring to the table, and none of the rejection you have faced in your life has been able to subtract one bit from the incredibly special person you have become.

That's the sentiment in "You Will Be Found," which actually did get to me, my snarky diss a few paragraphs back be damned. Truth be told, tears were found on my face more than once. If you show up at Dr. Phillips Center, I bet "you will be found" wiping away some too.

One thing that will not be found, however: a Playbill. DEAR EVAN HANSEN is the third huge, hot-off-Broadway hit to play here this season (following Hello, Dolly! and Hamilton), and it's a shame that patrons have had to settle for the Center's new budget-minded theatre programs as souvenirs.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that DEAR EVAN HANSEN lives up to the hype the way that Hamilton lived up to the hype, but it's a show worth seeing and knowing, both because it will be important to theatre history down the road and because it has something important to say today.

To that end, it's not a stretch to guess that this show has probably saved someone's life, or will someday. And that matters more than any of its shortcomings.

Find yourself in the audience for DEAR EVAN HANSEN while it's still in residency at the stunning Dr. Phillips Center. To purchase tickets, or to learn more about the current 2018-2019 Broadway in Orlando season (or the upcoming 2019-2020 season), visit the Dr. Phillips Center website.

What do you think of DEAR EVAN HANSEN's national tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photo Credit: Ben Levi Ross as 'Evan Hansen' and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

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