BWW Review: ASU Gammage Hosts The National Tour Of DEAR EVAN HANSEN
So, Steven Levenson, acclaimed TV writer and playwright (The Language of Trees, Seven Minutes in Heaven), enamored with themes related to family and youth dysfunction, pens a book for Broadway about a lonely boy named Evan Hansen who stumbles into a well-intentioned lie that backfires in ways unforeseen.
The confused and erratic teen walks the halls of high school, invisible to his peers. At home, he also feels invisible to and not understood by his hard-working mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips). In therapy and on meds, he writes a letter to himself, invoking among other confessionals his longing for a girl named Zoe (Maggie McKenna) whose brother, Connor (Marrick Smith), seizes the note after a close encounter of the hostile kind with Evan. Connor commits suicide and Evan's letter is found on his body, leading everyone to believe that Evan and Connor were secret best friends. Evan feeds the lie to make Connor's grieving parents (Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar) happy and, in the process, endears himself to them and, fortuitously, sister Zoe. The lie speeds out of control as the effort to memorialize Connor with an orchard (The Connor Project) becomes a viral on-line fundraising sensation.
This then is the foundation of DEAR EVAN HANSEN, the 2017 Tony Award-winning musical that is riding a crest of commercial popularity in a national tour that is running now through December 2nd at the ASU Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, AZ after which it moves on to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco.
And, why not? It's a Broadway-smart production that fuses together the essential elements of a smash hit along with just enough superficiality and social relevance to juice up the audience and build box office. It's just best to throw cynicism out the window and absorb it (all three hours!) for what it's worth.
In the wake of their La La Land success (an Oscar for City of Stars), Benj Pasek and Justin Paul put pulsating pop rock music and sensitive lyrics to Levenson's vision, scoring again with a Tony for their contribution.
The set, simple but elegantly haunting, juxtaposes the sensory overload of social media (Peter Nigrini's brilliantly projected barrage and banners of texts and posts that span across the stage) with the solitude of a boy's bedroom...Evan's laptop serving as the vital link between him and the universe.
And, when it comes to relevance...If you ever experienced, or knew someone who did, the sense of isolation, futility, and angst that attends the teenage years (suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-to-24-year olds and about 15% of teens report some form of self-injury), you will recognize and empathize with Evan.
It may be a bit superficial and glossy, but it works well enough, with just enough dramatic tension in the second act, to move your heart and punch your gut. Who can argue with the premise that no one deserves to be forgotten or that, if you're feeling lost, #youwill be found?
Ben Levi Ross delivers the goods with a profoundly moving portrayal of Evan, eliciting both uncomfortable laughter and unabashed sympathy. With a voice that soars into heavenly territory, Ross owns the character. His mannerisms ~ the rapid-fire chatter of uncertain and ill conceived stabs at communication, the nervous jerking of his body, the bewildered frowns, the awkward tugging at the corner of his shirt when it seems there's nothing else to hold onto ~ convey a portrait of a boy in dire straits.
Ross is surrounded by a cast that brings distinction to their roles. Jessica Phillips, Noll and Lazar bring to life the milquetoast parents who are afraid of their own political shadows and who, in due course, nurture a coddled if not disaffected generation. Maggie McKenna is spot on as the grieving sister whose feelings for Evan shift with full believability from standoffish to affectionate, from angry to forgiving. Jared Goldsmith is perfect as Evan's snarky friend. And, Phoebe Koyabe, a home-grown talent from Chandler, shines as Evan's type-A accomplice in the campaign for The Connor Project.
For all the angst and grief and turmoil that the principles endure, the nagging question at the end of DEAR EVAN HANSEN is, to what end? We've witnessed characters in search of a purpose and at the peak of self-indulgence, uncertain that any have grown from the experience or grown up. For Evan, he has survived it all with a touch of added confidence. But, as the sun sets over The Connor Project, what has been learned and gained beside an orchard in memory of a stranger?
Photo credit to Matthew Murphy