BWW Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN Reminds Us We Are Not Alone at The John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
The phenomenon that got its start in DC at the Arena Stage in 2015 has come home to DC for a five week, sold out run at the Kennedy Center. Dear Evan Hansen is the story of an anxious young man desperate to fit in, and the powerful musical is opening the conversation to a wider audience as it launches a 50-city national tour of the United States, with international productions in Toronto and, next year, London. In an age when it's easy to feel increasingly disconnected, the revolutionary Dear Evan Hansen reminds us in myriad, potent ways that we are not alone.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN tackles sensitive issues like depression, anxiety, suicide, and the rise of social media with an ingenious, subtle book by Tony Award winner Steven Levenson, music by Grammy, Tony, and Academy Award winners Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (La La Land, The Greatest Showman), and direction by four-time Tony award nominee Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal). In contrast to most musicals on Broadway in recent memory, Dear Evan Hansen is not derived from any source material or existing content. It is fresh, contemporary, and like nothing you have ever seen before.
An uncontrollable lie sets the heart wrenching plot in motion. As part of his treatment for anxiety, Evan's therapist directs him to write a letter to himself every day. A particularly upsetting letter winds up in the pocket of depressed and alienated classmate Conor Murphy. When Conor Murphy takes his own life and Conor's parent's discover Evan's letter in his pocket, Evan grasps the opportunity to live out the lie that he and Conor shared a secret, intimate friendship. Evan grows close to the Murphys, spending more and more time integrating himself into the family, and even begins dating Conor's sister, Zoe Murphy. When a video of Evan's heartfelt address to the school goes viral, his lie becomes too big to contain and Evan's relationship with overworked single mother Heidi begins to deteriorate.
The role of Evan is notoriously challenging, both physically and emotionally, and Ben Levi Ross delivers a performance that will leave you breathless (from trying to stifle sobs to giving into tension-relieving belly laughs). He dexterously navigates the way Evan's anxiety manifests physically- compulsively twitching, picking at his shirt, rubbing his eyes-all while delivering a technically impressive vocal performance. The small cast is packed with powerhouse performances. Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy delivers a youthful and soulful performance, and her voice is hauntingly beautiful. Jessica Phillips as Evan's hardworking, often absent mother Heidi and Christine Noll as Conor Murphy's grieving mother will break your heart. Aaron Lazar as Conor's devastated father, Marrick Smith as Connor Murphy, and Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe as Evan's peers round out the strong ensemble. Sound designer Nevin Steinberg, in collaboration with conductor Alex Harrington and his eight-member orchestra, create an impressive, immersive sound. Set designer David Korins "wind chime of screens" convey the overwhelming and all-encompassing nature of the social media landscape.
Despite its larger than life presence and digital following, Dear Evan Hansen is an intimate affair. In the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre I felt the people around me ride the waves of emotion, stifle sobs, and gasp. I watched companions grasp each other's hands as if to say, "do you feel what I feel?" Dear Evan Hansen invites you to feel empathy for the outcasts, the misfits, and anyone who has ever made, and regretted, a mistake. Our hyper-connect, hyper-disconnected world is reflected back to us in a way that invites true catharsis. It is an experience that will resonate long after the final chords of "For Forever."
Running Time: Act 1 - 80 min.; Intermission - 18 min.; Act 2 - 69 min.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN runs through September 8th at the Kennedy Center. For tickets visit https://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/TTTSE.