BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN at The Straz Center For The Performing Arts
Is an assumption not corrected, an invention born out of best intentions, a fabrication of truth that gives solace to a grieving family, still wrong? What if the lie unintentionally metamorphosizes into a voice for the silent, hope for the hopeless, a place where the invisible feel seen?
On Tuesday night, April 9, the audience at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts was left pondering those questions during the emotional nuanced three-hour performance of the six-time Tony Award-winner in 2017 (including best musical), DEAR EVAN HANSEN.
The show began even before the lights dimmed. Screens on stage were filled with projections of social media posts, and the familiar new post alert sounds filled the theatre. The hanging screens stayed throughout the production, showing the magnitude of the influence of social media and the lack of actual connection between people.
Vacillating between comedy and tragedy, DEAR EVAN HANSEN opened with the incredible Ben Levi Ross completely believable as self-conscious, anxiety-riddled Evan being encouraged by his divorced mom Heidi (Jessica Phillips) to write a therapist-mandated letter to himself: "Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why."
While Ben was flawless as the painfully, sweaty-palmed, socially-awkward, medicated son, Jessica was every mom struggling to balance family and a job, a realistic portrayal of a hard-working nightshift nurse/student who is well-meaning, but completely oblivious to what's going on in her son's life.
Evan's father had his own family and was both emotionally and geographically distant. To make his senior year even more intolerable, Evan had a cast on his arm from falling out a tree as an apprentice park ranger. His mother handed him a sharpie, suggesting he have all his friends sign.
The only issue... what friends?
At school, a rude comment came from "family friend" Jared, played with snarky enthusiasm by Jared Goldsmith. Jared offered some of the best comedic moments of the show.
Through no fault of his own Evan found himself shoved to the ground by Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), the brother of his secret crush, Zoe. Marrick gave an outstanding performance as the young man with "school shooter chic" who is more broken than we realize.
Zoe (Maggie McKenna) witnessed the event and Evan stumbled through a conversation with her, proving to himself the day was less than amazing.
Later in the computer lab, Evan printed out his letter, one that reveals his truth and his long-time secret crush on Zoe, but Conner grabbed it without reading it. The two had an awkward conversation and sarcastically, Conner signed his name huge across his cast so they could both pretend they had friends. Connor peaked at the letter and saw his sister's name, became angry and took the letter with him.
That evening, Connor took his life. When his parents found the letter, they simply assumed it was his suicide note specifically addressed to Evan. They were pleased that their son had a good friend and instead of denying their version of reality, Evan told them what they needed to hear and he became a welcome addition to the family. Evan became someone they could connect with to understand their loss and he grew close with Zoe and her family. Maggie's portrayal of Zoe felt completely authentic to someone who always felt frustrated, hidden in the shadow of her troubled sibling.
Evan reached out to Jared to manufacture back-dated emails, proving the Evan-Connor friendship and the song "Sincerely Me" brought a moment of laughter and levity with Ben, Jared, and Marrick performed a fun dance number, a counter to the heavy topic.
When news of their friendship spread through the school, go-getter Alana played exceptionally by Phoebe Koyabe started The Connor Project, co-chairing with Evan, providing a place for people to pay tribute to her "closest acquaintance." During a school assembly to launch the Conner Project, Evan reluctantly gave a speech that was recorded, went viral, connecting his voice with people around the country. When Ben performed "You Will Be Found," images of The Connor Project were reflected on the screens on stage and an entire row of teens in the seats behind me sobbed.
As Evan became more trapped in his web of lies, more seduced by his inadvertent fame, Ben's performance was gut-wrenching as he filled the hole left by Conner. Connor's parents Cynthia and Larry (Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar) heartbreakingly portrayed the parents grappling with unanswered questions, dealing with grief in their own way.
The unsteady house of cards grew taller with the release of the suicide note until eventually, expectedly it toppled to the ground and Evan was forced to confront the Murphy family and devastate them with the truth about the note and everything that followed. Evan's revelation to his mother and the song "So Big/So Small" brought more tears.
Did he fall out of the tree or did he just let go?
This morning I'm sitting at my computer listening to "You Will Be Found" and tearing up yet again because this performance was so needed. With the news and social media filled with memes about loneliness, dozens of posts about anxiety and depression, a feed that viciously points out our differences, the hate and intolerance that divide us, DEAR EVAN HANSEN reminded us that we are the same, that we were all in this together and no one was truly alone.
After seeing this beautiful production, I completely understand the excitement that surrounded it. I really wish someone would start the Conner Project. IRL. #youwillbefound