‘Dear Evan Hansen’ musical explores human isolation from the teen perspective
Don’t expect big dance numbers, a huge cast or elaborate sets in “Dear Evan Hansen.” Compared to most musicals, this one is a more cerebral exploration of the human condition, a journey into the heart and mind of a dorky high school senior who makes a mess of everything he touches but somehow comes away whole.
The winner of the 2017 Tony for Best Musical, “Dear Evan Hansen” has a great live band but no particularly memorable songs – it seems more like a play with music than a true musical. And somehow that works. Evan Hansen himself (Ben Levi Ross) starts out as a typical modern teen: medicated, in therapy and both terrified by and highly desirous of female company. As part of his therapy, he writes a letter to himself in attempt to frame his anxieties and, perhaps, get past them. In a bizarre twist, a loser bully named Connor (Marrick Smith), grabs Evan’s highly personal letter off the printer and disappears with it.
And then he kills himself. And his parent find Evan’s therapeutic letter to himself and think it’s Connor’s suicide note, written to his friend, Evan Hansen. This single incident informs the rest of the play, with a Jenga-puzzle of lying on Evan’s part driving the action.
Any normal person would quickly correct the mistake, but Connor Murphy was an unhappy kid with no friends, and his grieving parents see the letter as a sign that he had at least one person in his life: Evan Hansen. Sure, no one had ever seen them together, but Larry and Cythia Murphy (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll) are grasping at straws. And Evan, it turns out, is too weak to tell them the truth, especially when he sees how a few lies might ease the Murphys’ suffering. So he creates a story about his non-existent friendship with Connor, which leads to … all kinds of things. Some of them are good — like getting to be the boyfriend of Connor’s beautiful sister Zoe — while some are not so good: Evan cannot bear to share personal information with his mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), so she justifiably freaks out when she discovers the social media world is abuzz with news about Evan and his BFF Connor.
At its heart, “Dear Evan Hansen” is about loneliness and invisibility among teenagers — with suicide as the terrible worst-case scenario. And while the halls at school can be cruel, social media plays an outsized role exacerbating all that in the lives of today’s teenagers.
On stage, the set pieces on the ground are simple, but the panels that hover above the characters are in constant motion. On them are projected the day’s social media posts — a firehose of information from Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or whatever. If they think it or type it, it’s flying about above their heads as an omnipresent force in their lives — accompanied by a mélange of voices that serve as a sort of Greek chorus in the background. If you’re writing or receiving, you’re in; if you’re on the sidelines, you may as well be invisible.
Evan and Connor may be very different people, but they shared that outsider feeling. We never really found out what drove Connor’s angst and isolation, other than the fact that he’d grown into a mostly unpleasant person no one liked (even his sister). But Evan wears much of it on his sleeve, blaming most of it on his absentee father and hyper-busy, always gone mother.
It’s hardly a new idea that no one wants to be alone or cast out from the tribe, but “Dear Evan Hansen” tells the story in a compelling and unique manner. It is so far the best show I’ve seen in terms of how it integrated and displayed the workings of the digital media that’s become so ingrained in our lives. And the scenes where the posthumous Connor is being manipulated by the stories about him concocted by Evan and his buddy Jared (Jared Goldsmith) were quite funny.
I was left a little flat by the ending, which left us without a satisfying resolution — and certainly not the big number we expect to close out a musical. There were a few scenes, particularly one with Connor’s father and Evan involving a baseball mitt that were a bit boring. But overall “Dear Evan Hansen” is full of great performances, and the message the audience is left with is one of hope and, perhaps, a better realization that if you want the people you love to thrive, you’ve got to pay attention. In the show, that’s underscored in the song “You Will Be Found.”
In today’s post-truth Trump era, a show about how far a pack of lies can get you may be a balm of sorts. But it’s also fair to hope that, sometime soon, we can dispense with the façades and falsehoods and just tell each other the truth about what’s going on. And with teens finding this show as compelling as their parents do, the message may be getting out through the generous lies of Evan Hansen.
‘Dear Evan Hansen’ plays at the Buell through Oct. 13.