October 21, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman
“Dear Evan Hansen,” Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, Oct. 17-Nov. 25, 2018
In Brief: An intense, deeply moving, often thrilling production about adolescent alienation and a teen’s desperate attempt to find acceptance that nearly destroys two families. An unlikely subject for a musical, to be sure, but a strong cast and an inspired, resonant score make it all work superbly.
Evan Hansen (a splendid Ben Levi Ross) isn’t merely an awkward, socially inept high school senior trying to fit in. He’s severely despondent, on anti-depressants that don’t help him much. Neither does the watchful concern of his single mother (Jessica Phillips). She works long shifts as a nurse’s aid to make ends meet and studies at night to become a paralegal, leaving Evan on his own with plenty of time to indulge his despair or, as the story develops, find an ill-advised outlet for it.
Ben Levi Ross leads the cast of "Dear Evan Hansen" (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
This last comes about when one of the daily letters of encouragement he writes to himself on his therapist’s orders falls into the hands of another lost student, Connor (Marrick Smith), who misinterprets it as a personal attack on him and his sister, Zoe (Maggie McKenna). Evan secretly loves Zoe, but has been too shy to approach her.
A few days later, Evan learns that Connor has killed himself. He had the letter Evan wrote in his pocket. Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry Murphy (Aaron Lazar) interpret this as a suicide note that their son wrote to his friend Evan. They invite Evan to dinner and over time welcome him into their hearts. Unable to admit the truth, Evan plays along, relishing warmth from the family he never had while hoping to soothe the Murphys, as well as attract Zoe.
Evan’s deception deepens. It soon begins to spin out of control, though not without some benefits. With the help of his only friend, Jared (Jared Kleinman), and another loner student, Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), he makes up a series of back-dated emails that he supposedly shared with Connor. These form the basis of a social media site Evan and Alana publish to bring them fame and acceptance at school. For a while, it works.
An intense, deeply moving, often thrilling production... a strong cast and an inspired, resonant score make it all work superbly.
Eventually, Connor’s parents, Evan’s mother, and Zoe – now Evan’s girlfriend – come to realize what has been going on. It’s a time of reckoning that will make or break Evan and also test the audience’s willingness to embrace this acutely flawed, but sincere character and the somewhat incredulous set of circumstances playwright Steven Levenson invented.
Fortunately for us, the production’s manifold strengths outweigh any minor quibbles, starting with a brilliant score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. These songs are dramatic, moving, and exceedingly entertaining. They powerfully illuminate the emotions and dilemmas of the main characters in the play and also are fine, poetic pop compositions that can stand on their own, and will for years to come.
Four sensational ballads – For Forever, You Will Be Found, So Big/So Small, and the show’s signature Waving Through A Window – are worth the price of admission alone.
Levenson’s book is almost as rewarding. It’s both dramatic and thoughtful as it plumbs the recesses of a host of crumbling emotions, recriminations, and bad decisions. It’s also funny and clever when it needs to be. I didn’t buy Evan’s redemption at the end, but it really didn’t matter. What’s important is what Evan did or failed to do that got him to this point, not how he got out of it.
Ben Levi Ross and Jessica Phillips in "Dear Evan Hansen" (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
The cast, under Michael Greif’s spare, sensitive direction, is uniformly excellent. That’s especially so for Ross in the title role. His acting and vocals are both terrific. He's an anti-hero, but an appealing, sympathetic one.
Kleinman and Beck are appropriately nerdy and amusing as they conspire with Evan to deceive. Phillips, as Evan’s worrisome mother, has a standout moment in the second act as she professes her abiding support and love for him in the expressive emotional ballad So Big/So Small.
It took two years for this show, still a sensation on Broadway, to reach Los Angeles. I’m pleased to say that it was worth the wait to see material this exquisite and compelling brought to life so vividly.
A personal note: The performance at The Ahmanson two nights ago received the requisite Los Angeles standing ovation. As my wife said, “How do you know if a show’s any good when everything here gets a standing ovation?” Indeed.
"Dear Evan Hansen," The Ahmanson, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org