Both profoundly moving and profoundly disturbing, DEAR EVAN HANSEN is one of the most deeply troubling musicals I’ve seen. I left DEAR EVAN HANSEN with a swirl of mixed emotions. With book by Steven Levenson and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and direction by Michael Greif, this 2017 Tony Award-winning musical wants desperately to send a message about the possibility of hope amid the isolating times of high school and the swirling of social media feeds, but the show feels weighed down by its morally dark storyline.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a painful and convincing portrait of a teen with crippling anxiety and suffering from the uncomfortable isolation of high school. Evan’s experience with anxiety and his immense loneliness certainly ring true, and the show clearly demonstrates how social media can amplify those unsettling feelings for the worse. Never have I ever heard a character use so many speech fillers in his dialogue, but that’s intentional. Evan is so gripped by anxiety and the thought of any social interaction that he quite literally cannot string a sentence together. Evan experiences his social anxiety to the extreme, and it is heartbreaking to see how much his struggle has impeded him from forming the friendships he so craves.
The musical is a meditation on social media and how it makes the social isolation and challenges of high school all the more difficult. This is mirrored by David Korins’s set, which largely makes space for large panels upon which Peter Nigrini’s projections are mounted; endless reams of social media feeds and clutter. We see this echoed in one of the show’s most well-known songs, “Waving Through A Window.” When Evan sings about “tap tap tapping on the glass,” he refers not only to the song’s window metaphor, but also to tapping on his smartphone screen. Evan sends messages into a void where he feels no one will see or hear him.
I must share a few words on the plot, for the complexities therein represent both what works about DEAR EVAN HANSEN and also what makes it so often difficult to swallow. In order to help her son, Evan’s overworked mother Heidi (Jessica Phillips, convincingly harried and delivering some of the most powerful vocals of the night) has enrolled him in therapy. Evan’s therapist encourages him to write letters to himself that start, “Dear Evan Hansen. Today is going to be a good day, and here’s why.”
We see that Evan is not in a good place mentally at the top of the show. He writes a much darker letter to himself in the school’s computer lab, which makes its way into the pocket of his equally isolated classmate, Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith). After Connor commits suicide, Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar), find Evan’s letter in his pocket and mistakenly believe that it’s a note between the two. At a loss, Evan goes along with the family’s assumption. But soon, Evan’s original lie spirals way beyond him and leaves a great deal of destruction in its wake.
Based off the initial lie, Evan recognizes an opportunity to grow closer to Connor’s family and be a part of the family unit he so desires (we learn Evan’s father walked out on him and his mother when he was seven years old). It’s also no coincidence that he harbors an intense crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Maggie McKenna, making the most of an underdeveloped role), who represents the jazz band girl of Evan’s dreams.
Evan enlists the help of his family friend Jared Kleinman to create a series of fake emails between him and Connor to show the Murphys. In so doing, Evan starts to believe his own lies about the fabricated friendship because he so desperately longs for a friend of his own. However, when Evan’s classmate Alana Beck decides to take his story and turn it into The Connor Project, a viral online community, the steamrolling of Evan’s lies comes to an uncomfortable head.
Pasek and Paul have composed beautiful melodies and lovely lyrics for DEAR EVAN HANSEN, but the sweet songs feel jarring next to the dark, morally uneasy nature of the plot. This is perhaps most true when it comes to the first act finale, “You Will Be Found.” It’s a beautiful song with a message of finding hope and connection, but the song’s lyrics feel at odds with the fact that the false Connor Project is gaining more and more traction online while the number unfolds. I don’t think Pasek and Paul meant for the song, by itself genuinely lovely, to have a disconnect with the unfolding of the plot’s events. But that happens here, and at other moments in DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Pasek and Paul have composed a suite of tuneful pop musical songs, but they often feel like they exist on a different plane than the unsettling narrative.
The characterization of Connor Murphy has mixed results. We clearly see that Connor struggles with mental illness, much like Evan. In Connor’s case, however, this manifests in different ways. While Evan has greatly internalized his anxiety and his fears about how others perceive him, Connor lashes out. He is visibly angry and suffers from substance abuse. The musical doesn’t give much dimension to his character, though. And Connor literally becomes a projection in Evan’s mind in later scenes; Evan so desperately wishes he had the kind of intimate friendship that he crafts that he starts to see Connor in his head. Smith’s performance in his posthumous scenes becomes marionette-like; he molds his body language and vocal tone to match the image the other characters envision for him. It’s a remarkable, surprisingly charismatic performance, but DEAR EVAN HANSEN never really lends insight into Connor Murphy, the person.
The other supporting characters are mainly one-dimensional. Evan’s fellow classmates Alana Beck and Jared Kleinman are meant to represent different ways in which feelings of isolation can manifest themselves in high school students, but both characters fall flat. Alanna is painted as the bossy overachiever, who sees Connor’s suicide as an opportunity to take up a “cause” and have the story go viral on the internet. Phoebe Koyabe leans into Alana’s façade of assertiveness and false sense of self-assurance, but her performance can’t solve the roughly sketched character.
Jared repeatedly makes off-color, disconcerting jokes. For example, when he runs into Connor on the first day of senior year, he remarks, “I like your haircut. Very school shooter chic.” While high school students can be merciless in what they say to one another, this particular brand of joke doesn’t feel like it needs to be verbalized in the show. In his portrayal of the role, Jared Goldsmith does infuse DEAR EVAN HANSEN with some rare moments of humor. Through Jared and Alana, we see that Evan is certainly not alone in his challenges of connecting to his classmates. I just wish Levenson’s book and Pasek and Paul’s lyrics would give us more facets to their personalities.
As Evan, Ben Levi Ross gives a formidable performance that commands great pathos. This role is clearly exhausting for Ross, both physically and emotionally. He portrays Evan’s anxiety with such command, from the rapid blinking and the unease with which he delivers every single “Um” in the character’s dialogue. Ross is also a superb singer and finds so many moments to emote in each song. While much is made of “Waving Through A Window,” Ross’s delivery is perhaps even more remarkable in his other early solo, “For Forever.” In the song, Evan fabricates a perfect day in the life of his friendship with Connor to share with his parents. Ross conveys with such profundity the fantasy that Evan crafts in this song, as we see him start to buy into his own lie. It’s a nuanced take that drives home the character’s journey in the first of many destructive decisions to follow. Ross gives a performance that is truly virtuoso.
While DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a powerful and thought-provoking reflection on the challenges of high school and the powers of social media both to connect and to isolate, the show in many ways feel a bit too permissive when it comes to the storyline. Through Ross’s Evan, we see a haunting portrait of the difficulties navigating the high school halls while struggling with anxiety and profound loneliness. Yet the show seems to suffer from some of the same identity crises that high school students themselves face: it wants to put forth a message of light amidst the darkness of adolescent loneliness, but it does so by portraying the desperate, destructive actions of one teen in a way that’s morally uncomfortable and dark.
The national tour of DEAR EVAN HANSEN plays through March 10 at Broadway In Chicago’s James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph. Tickets are $85-$175. Visit BroadwayInChicago.com
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com