Last night, at the Ahmanson Theatre, I set sail through the sea of see and be seen artists, pop trendsetters, celebrities, colleagues, and die-hard #DearEvanHansen fans; all of whom make up the Los Angeles theater crowd––buzzing in anticipation for a show that broke the Internet. Okay, maybe that statement is a touch overplayed, but the initial social media hype surrounding Dear Even Hansen had me sucked into a YouTube loop for days. Spoiler alert, the first National Tour of Dear Evan Hansen gloriously exceeds expectations; I loved it. By now, anyone with even a mild affinity for theater has heard of the show, but please allow me to celebrate the success of this superb modern musical.
The story of a teenager struggling to triumph over social anxiety and depression isn’t necessarily a new concept. What sets Dear Evan Hansen apart is hidden in plain sight. Accessibility. The need to connect. The pressure to fit in. The desire to belong. All thrust upon you as you walk into the theater. The sound of text message alerts and other social noise chirping from stage instantly transports you into Evan’s world. A simple but clever backdrop of layered panels on which social media snippets are projected provides a textured, contemporary social aspect. I gazed around the theater to see hipsters and executives––young and old––huddling in pockets of the theater talking to each other whilst tapping away at their screens, barley looking up from their phones. This is Evan’s universe.
At the top of Act I we meet Evan, portrayed by the extraordinarily talented Ben Levi Ross alone in his bedroom composing a letter to himself––as prescribed by his therapist––in an effort to overcome his feelings of anxiety and build confidence. The story unfolds through a series of painfully relatable high school themes that ultimately lead up to the suicide of a loner classmate that Evan shared a brief exchange with at the start of a new school year. Quickly, an untruth meant to help the grieving community, gets away from Evan and we witness just how easy it is to lose sight of reality.
By Act II, Evan finds himself swimming deeper into the pool of deceit. Cozying up to his faux-best friend’s parents and moving in on his unrequited love––who is also the sister of the aforementioned (and now deceased) fake-BFF. Evan begins to enjoy the popularity that usually surrounds people who lie on social media; it’s so easy to be swept along in the ecstasy of acceptance. Sadly, we also witness the torment and destruction that inevitably comes between his family and the few friends who are actually alive and influential in his life.
The book by Tony® Award winner, Steven Levenson is smart, subtle, and completely in touch with the ever-shifting social landscape. Likewise, the Tony®, OSCAR®, Grammy®, and Golden Globe Award winning duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul share in the spotlight with music and lyrics that strike the perfect balance of complexity, soul, and teen-angst-anthems without the pop clichés. The team of musical directors and supervisors navigates the entire ensemble through a demanding vocal score—inspiring meaningful, emotional performances. While this was not a dance-heavy show, choreographer Danny Mefford crafted lovely and appropriate pedestrian movement in the ensemble numbers and fluid transitions between scenes. Further enhancing the story was the rockstar lightening design by, Japhy Weideman and visually stimulating projection design by, Peter Nigrini. Director, Michael Greif guided the production with flawless clarity that is both current and catchy without coming off trite. The raw emotion and energy that radiates from every single member of the small but mighty cast is a perfect illustration of successful, creative teamwork. The show is a mirror of our current cultural landscape; a global collective of plugged-in communicators unable to distinguish between online ego and genuine relationships.
At the risk of sounding like a super fan, I struggle to find fault in this production. Those with a more discerning eye may challenge my glowing review, but this show is the epitome of what I crave from musical theater. Thankfully, I’m validated by the savvy—often catty—LA theater elite in their billowing, sold-out standing ovation.
Jared Goldsmith delivers an enjoyably ruthless side kick as Jared Kleinman and Marrick Smith summons a solid and convincing performance as the misunderstood and all too real bully, Connor Murphy. The duo supplies a dimension of snarky, playful levity to the fierce story.
The one connection I had with the cast came as a surprise to me when I opened my program to see Broadway veteran, Aaron Lazar as Larry Murphy. Aaron and I were classmates years ago in a scene study class in New York City; our acting teacher Joan Rosenfels would assuredly be proud of his seasoned performance.
Ben Levi Ross hits ridiculously, impossible high notes with such ease, honesty, and charisma that one might believe they could simply jump up on stage and sing along with him. Seriously, I wanted to jump on stage and sing along with him. Which is a huge testament to Ross’s ability to make a hero out of an outcast. Following his gut-wrenching song “For Forever” near the top of Act I, he received a thunderous applause that lasted (at least) 30 seconds, but it could have easily continued for 10 minutes––that’s how talented he is.
Jessica Phillips genuinely portrays Evan’s mom with compassion, depth, and a gorgeous voice––she also delivers one of the most delicious lines in the musical. ” The only people that like high school are cheerleaders and football players, and those people all end up miserable anyway.”
I may be an exception to that rule, but only because I found my tribe in the Drama Club, which could explain why I’m crushing hard on this production of Dear Evan Hansen. In our selfie-obsessed, twenty-four-hour-a-day media addicted landscape, Dear Evan Hansen provides the perfect opportunity for audiences of all ages to put down their smartphones, reconnect, and rediscover themselves through live theater. Go see this show! Now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through November 25th.
For more information and tickets, click here.
Featured image: Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen and the Company of the first North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen” – Photo by Matthew Murphy