When Dear Evan Hansen debuted on Broadway, it became the hot ticket musical and went on to win six Tony Awards in 2017 including Best Musical. With music and lyrics from Academy Award-winning La La Landers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and book by Tony winner Steven Levenson, the has leveraged social media to sculpt a new brand of musical suited for the millennial generation. Exploring identity, family, and the wild — and sometimes unhealthy — desire to feel seen and liked, Dear Evan Hansen finally made its way to woo Los Angeles, shattering all weekly box office records in L.A.’s Ahmanson and Center Theatre Group history. The musical, which plays through November 25, lives up to the hype, taking Los Angeles through an emotional gauntlet of tears, frustration, happiness, laughter, and…more tears. But along with its hype, style, and unbelievable performances, Dear Evan Hansen has, at times, trouble clearing hurdles when it comes to mental health.
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The musical follows the titular Evan (played by the remarkable Ben Levi Ross), who is an outcast and is encouraged by his mom (Jessica Phillips) — and off-stage therapist — to write letters to himself to help him cope with anxiety. When one of his most personal letters gets in the wrong hands of fellow outcast Connor (Marrick Smith) — who happens to be the brother of Evan’s crush Zoe (Maggie McKenna) — things start to spiral out of control.
When Connor, who is more of an edgy, in-the-shadows outcast, commits suicide his parents find Evan’s letter on Connor leading them and Zoe to believe that the two were best friends. From the tragedy, grows a comedy of errors that becomes more than Evan can handle.
Dear Evan Hansen is an interesting musical that is very of-the-moment, utilizing tech-savvy stage design that mimics the never-ending stream of tweets, Facebook posts, and Tumblr entries. Despite questioning whether or not the use of social media would fare well in future iterations of the musical, the story itself is timely more now than ever with the current social climate and the willingness to be open about mental health and suicide.
But let’s face it — the hero of the musical makes very questionable choices that make him come off as a horrible person. Although we feel sorry for him because he is an awkward outcast, Evan is doing an awful thing: he is lying and continues to dig himself deeper and deeper into a hole. In the end, the repercussions are more lenient than he deserves. When you strip away the window dressing, the story is essentially about a guy who uses the suicide of another to feed his need to be liked. It shares some similarities to the “popularity-by-death” moral of Heathers, but that cult classic is a dark comedy. Dear Evan Hansen, I assume, is geared more toward the wholesome musical route…so something doesn’t quite add up here.
Yes, I know that the musical is more complicated, which is why Dear Evan Hansen is fascinating, captivating, emotional, and is subject to such scrutiny. It makes us question what is morally right and is certainly a “what would you do?” situation. If it weren’t for Evan’s anxiety and his earnest behavior, he would be a villain. We feel sorry enough for him so that we begin to empathize with his situation and hope that he comes out of the situation with as little harm as possible. With an absent dad and a mom who means well but is never there, Evan is desperate to be noticed — and we are rooting for him. But in the back your mind, there’s a voice saying, “He’s sitting on a throne of lies and is getting away with it!”
In an era where society feeds off of likes, retweets, and acknowledgment of one’s actions via social media and IRL, Dear Evan Hansen illustrates the repercussions of the desperation and reckless need to be liked. One could argue that Evan’s mental health is a factor in his actions, but as SNL’s Pete Davidson said, “Being mentally ill is not an excuse to act like a jackass.” Sure, Evan was not at Kanye level behavior, but there seems to be a subtle hint that there is a connection between his anxiety and his actions — and that doesn’t quite line up. The musical doesn’t dive deep enough into mental health but rather leans into the “effect” of it all — which is unfair and could have been fixed with an exploration of Evan’s mental health instead of just mentioning that he is taking pills and seeing a therapist — who we never see.
Despite the issues with the musical’s portrayal of mental health, Dear Evan Hansen still delivers what it promises: a solid and energetic modern-day musical that serves as a significant benchmark for Broadway. The understudy for Tony winner Ben Platt on the original Broadway production, it’s clear that Ross is destined for greatness with his performance as Evan, belting out song after song with an unbelievable amount verve and strength, starting with the musical’s most recognizable song “Waving Through A Window”, which is the foundation of the show’s intent.
The eight-member cast is strong and each delivers notable performance to keep the Evan Hansen train going with gorgeous orchestration and Pasek & Paul’s on-brand thoughtful lyrics which echo the socially-minded emotion of The Greatest Showman.
Nods are in order for Jared Goldsmith, who plays Evan’s family friend Jared with refreshing wiseass comedy that cuts through the show’s tense uneasiness. And although Ross’s castmates sing each number as if it’s their last, it’s Phillips’ performance of “So Big/So Small” that steals the second act with this second-to-last number of the entire show. Comforting Evan after all has spiraled out of control, Phillips’ Heidi sings the regret and love of a single mother and she single-handedly makes the crowd a sobbing mess of emotion.
In the final scene, the social media screens are lifted away and the audience is bathed in the blue light of the sky as Evan and Zoe reconcile after being apart for two years. There’s a calm at the end of the musical that is almost cathartic and almost makes you forget about the viral lies and, like Zoe, we forgive Evan but not forget. Despite some speed bumps when it comes to the portrayal of mental health, Dear Evan Hansen breaks through as a modern musical benchmark, tackling issues that will resonate with people have always been “on the outside, always looking in.”
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