The blockbuster “Dear Evan Hansen” starts out as a sad, intimate musical about crippling social anxiety and isolation but ends up turning into something quite different.
At the helm of this brilliant show, now on national tour at Playhouse Square's Connor Palace, is astounding 21-year-old actor Ben Levi Ross, who is a bundle of raw nerves and emotion as the teenage title character. He makes us love Evan Hansen — nervous tics, lies and all — with his character's self-deprecating humor and sweet heart.
It's a tour de force performance in which Ross is onstage for nearly all of the show that runs about two hours and 45 minutes, not including intermission. The actor, who understudied Evan as well as the show's two other young male roles on Broadway, brings great wisdom and vulnerability to his performance.
He also brings heartbreaking emotion and an ethereal falsetto to his singing of this beautiful, thoroughly contemporary score, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The show's eight-piece band, which plays from a platform above stage right, heightens the show's intimacy, especially when solo guitar or strings are featured.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” winner of six 2017 Tony Awards and a 2018 Grammy for its cast album, is a musical that has made waves around the world for its insight into teen mental health and its message about the importance of reaching out for help. The story follows Evan, a friendless teen who ends up becoming embroiled in a lie after fellow teen Connor takes his own life. Loner Evan, who has always been desperate to become a part of something, begins to live a life where all of his dreams seem to have come true. But at what cost?
What makes this story so dramatic is that although Evan is living a lie, we understand why and believe that his initial motive to help the grieving Murphy family is altruistic. Ironically, through a terrible misunderstanding that he chooses to perpetuate, Evan finds his own voice and strength, which ultimately helps others heal.
Among those joining Ross onstage is Jessica Phillips as endearing, overextended single mom Heidi Hansen; the hilarious Jared Goldsmith as sarcastic realist Jared Kleinman, Evan's family friend; and Maggie McKenna as the vibrant, conflicted yet kind Zoe Murphy, Evan's love interest. Phillips creates one of the most tender moments in the show as she expresses her unconditional love for Evan in “So Big/So Small.”
Video projections by Peter Nigrini are phenomenal, ever morphing and shifting to create a world of social media screens as the musical's backdrop. These screens explode during the score's most dramatic moments, including dramatic rests and key changes, greatly enhancing the audience's experience.
As Evan sings about “tap, tap, tapping on the glass” in “Waving Through a Window,” we learn that Evan had been trying to connect with others through social media but remains invisible to others. All of that changes in the emotionally charged ending to the first act, when a life-altering speech by Evan goes viral and sparks a suicide awareness movement in "You Will Be Found."
In this scene, it's a gut-punch to see Aaron Lazar's Larry Murphy, Connor's formerly closed-off, avoidant father, bent over crying, finally able to express his grief and hug his mourning wife, Cynthia (Christiane Noll).
In a show where the acting is supreme, Ross is a master at showing how the anxious, disappointed, scared or distraught Evan folds into himself. Evan's nervous tics, which Ross creates through odd head movements and repeated grasping of his shirt, are also a sight to see.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” with its adult language and difficult content, is one that every teen should see. In this groundbreaking show, the hero who sees himself as broken must see his life come crashing down completely in order to work to become whole.
The show's mental health themes remind me of the equally challenging, contemporary musical “Next to Normal” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, also directed by “Dear Evan Hansen” director Michael Greif. But this time, those valuable mental health messages are about teens.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.