BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at Peace Center is Vivid, Funny, Devastating, and Deeply Human
My bedroom was upstairs, in a converted attic, slanted walls covered with Star Wars posters. I spent hours up there, listening to LPs (and cassettes) and wondering if I would ever fit in. I can't even imagine what it would have been like if I'd had a laptop. Or a smart phone. Or, god help us, Twitter. But still, when Evan Hansen sings "Give them no reason to stare" I know that feeling. I remember those awkward, awful, exhilarating, endless, transformative high school years.
Dear Evan Hansen brings a slice of that time to vivid life, while also exploring the flip side: the challenges of being a parent. I can see the show from both sides, from that kid inside me and the father that I am now. And it's remarkably contemporary, utilizing projections - and hilariously right sound effects - to present scrolling Twitter feeds, viral videos, and even FaceTime calls.
The show tells the story of a friendless high school kid named Evan Hansen (played with anxious perfection by Ben Levi Ross) who, by a quirk of fate, becomes famous for being a good friend. Unfortunately, Evan was never actually friends with the troubled Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith). No one was. Connor was a true loner, not particularly valued even by his own family. But when Connor's parents - played by Maggie McKenna and Aaron Lazar - think Evan was their son's friend, everything changes for them. And pretty soon this fictional friendship becomes a social media phenomenon.
The touring show, now playing at the Peace Center in downtown Greenville, SC, is perfectly cast and brilliantly executed, delivering a powerful message: you are not alone. Everything about it - the songs, the spare set, the engaging projections, the live band performing from just above the stage - combine to create a funny, devastating, and deeply human experience. It's a wonder.
But Dear Evan Hansen is more than just a musical, it's become a touchstone, a show for a generation. It's spawned a young adult novel and the original cast recording debuted at the highest Billboard spot (#8) for a Broadway cast album since 1961. This is a show that young people love. And this was the show that my fourteen year old daughter was looking forward to more than any other in the Peace Center's current season. She was so moved by it that she wrote her own review. So I'm going to let her words speak for me.
Emma Shurley's review of Dear Evan Hansen:
After leaving tonight's performance of Dear Evan Hansen, I - and presumably the rest of the audience - was left feeling raw, vulnerable, and very, very emotional. This show is unlike anything I have yet to see in the theater world and the emotion that is put behind the performance is raw and true, so true in fact that you feel now more than ever that you really and truly are living this story with them. The story takes you through the heart-wrenching loss of a child, the feeling of vulnerability, guilt, and shame of lying and being lied to, and the struggle of trying to figure out who you are. It takes you through the ups and downs of teenage romance and the devastating heartbreak that comes with it.
Being a teenager myself this story is one that I can really connect to, more than any other. Unfortunately the things that Evan is feeling and the things he says about feeling alone and like no one would notice if he disappeared are things that can be heard, felt, and said in a typical high school day. We live in a day and age where everyone can be connected to anyone in a matter of seconds yet kids are feeling more and more isolated. Connor's death jolts the community into remembering that we aren't alone and that everyone should and does matter.
Ben Levi Ross's performance as Evan had an incredible amount of raw emotion behind it and it was something that people in all age groups could connect with. Evan has both anxiety and depression and his portrayal of it was spot on. He did things and said things that I see and hear people in my day to day life who have anxiety or depression say. During the end of act one, Evan has a panic attack on stage that Ben Levi Ross does so well that for a moment you are left wondering if it is real or part of the show. This all the more captivated me and dragged me further and further into the story.
Every single person in the cast is putting everything they have onto the stage and leaving it there for the audience. Heidi Hansen, played by Jessica Phillips, sings the song "Good for You" which is one of the more emotional songs in the show and Phillips did it really, really well. When listening to her, you could truly feel the hurt and pain in her voice and she conveyed all the emotions of the songs really well. "Good For You" is also sung by the characters Jared, played by Jared Goldsmith, and Alana, played by Phoebe Koyabe. They portrayed the anger and disgust felt by the characters really well and made you feel it, too. A really interesting trait for Alana - that I think Phoebe Koyabe did really well - was that throughout the course of the show, she is portrayed as an overly confident, outspoken, and very credited person. Alana appears to be overflowing with confidence, but in reality she feels alone and as though what she says doesn't matter. I think that is something that is very true of most highschoolers and was portrayed really well.
Maggie McKenna, who played Zoe Murphy, did an outstanding job as the little sister who lost a brother she couldn't care less about. It was really neat to watch the arc of Zoe going from not caring at all that Conner was dead to feeling sad. Another really interesting thing to watch was Evan's costume changes and color changes throughout the show. He starts off in this bright blue and white striped shirt but then as the show moves on he gets a darker navy blue shirt and an almost grey overshirt which then turns into a black jacket, much like the one Connor wears, which over time gets more and more zipped up. This was symbolic of Evan getting deeper and deeper into the lie about Connor and him getting almost more and more depressed. By the end of the show, the audience and characters alike have been taken through an emotional rollercoaster. And while no one really does ever figure out who they are, they are all left with a strange peace in not knowing.