In 2016, the juggernaut musical Hamilton dominated the Tony Awards. It was one of the most innovative shows to open on Broadway in recent history, and many wondered if any musical would have the same impact the following year. The answer was, surprisingly, yes. At the Tony Awards in 2017, Ben Platt (The Book of Mormon, Pitch Perfect) took the stage in a striped collared shirt and arm cast to perform a song from new musical Dear Evan Hansen, in which he played the title character. Little did he know that by the end of the night, Dear Evan Hansen would dominate much as Hamilton did the year before, winning six Tony Awards including Best Musical. But while Hamilton tells an old story in a new way, Dear Evan Hansen is a completely modern musical, telling a brand new story in an even newer way.
A little over a year after winning the Tonys, the musical is on its first national tour, currently playing at the Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre. The show is about an anxiety-riddled teen loner named Evan (Ben Levi Ross) who gets mistakenly identified as the best friend of another teen loner, Connor (Marrick Smith), after Connor commits suicide. The lie spirals out of control, as Evan gets closer to Connor's family and finally feels less alone. From screens onstage depicting Facebook messages to plot points involving a crowdfunding campaign, contemporary elements highlight the narrative here, making it feel relevant and relatable thematically.
First and foremost, Hansen presents an accurate and unabashed take on mental health. Evan's anxiety requires him to take pills and see a therapist, who asks him to write letters to himself about why he's going to have a good day. Within the first 10 minutes of the show, a reference is made to school shootings and a character commits suicide. The fragile mental health of today's youth is not only extremely topical but also a subject that hasn't been tackled so head-on in a Broadway musical before.
Intertwined with teenage mental health issues is, of course, social media. This musical is about millennials and its commentary on the effects of ubiquitous online platforms, both good and bad, not only on teens but on society as a whole, is an important element. The show provides an accurate and astute point of view. The first act ends with a moving speech Evan makes at his school's memorial for Connor, which then spreads across social media, inspiring other kids with mental health issues, as the hashtag #youarenotalone goes viral. This is social media at its best — connecting people from all over the world so they can support one another and feel less alone in their problems. On the flip side, in Act 2, Connor's fake suicide note also goes viral, resulting in strangers from all walks of life (even adults, they point out) attacking his family both online and in real life via anonymous phone calls. Comments sections online can be pretty ugly places, and we've all seen internet trolls on the hunt for their latest prey. Hansen aptly shows the juxtaposition of social media at its best and worst, how it can be used to build people up in one moment only to tear them down the next.
The musical also adeptly depicts the struggles of single parenthood. Evan talks about how his father left when he was 7 and isn't really part of his life, so it's all on his mother, Heidi, played with incredible vulnerability and range by Jessica Phillips. Raising Evan on her own as she tries to balance work and paralegal classes, we see how her absence (she rarely is able to eat dinner with him and even forgets about a taco night they plan together) makes him feel even more alone. We see the pain in her eyes as Evan becomes closer to the Connors, a more traditional nuclear family with a mom who doesn't work and a dad who wants to teach his kids how to break in a baseball glove. In one of the most moving numbers near the end of the show, So Big/So Small, Heidi confesses to Evan, "I knew there would be moments that I'd miss/And I knew there would be space I couldn't fill/And I knew I'd come up short a billion different ways/And I did/And I do/And I will."
All the characters in the show are similarly complex and multidimensional. Even Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), the embodiment of millennial self-centered do-goodism, becomes relatable when she reveals her motivations behind appropriating Connor's suicide for her own benefit. The Tony Award–winning book by Steven Levenson (who wrote for Masters of Sex) can definitely be credited for the characters' complexity. But it's also a testament to the talented touring cast, who are able to bring these complicated characters to life. Every member of the ensemble shines in his or her own way, particularly Marrick Smith, who is not onstage often as Connor but steals the show every time he is.
L.A. native Ben Levi Ross' take on Evan Hansen skillfully displays the character's awkwardness, and his voice is great, especially when he hits those high notes. But in some scenes it's a bit hard to believe he's a straight teenager in love with Zoe Murphy. The show addresses how Evan's fake emails with Connor almost make it seem as if they had a romantic relationship, and Ross' portrayal of the character makes this seem even more plausible. (Fun fact: Ross' real-life boyfriend, Taylor Trensch, is currently playing the same role on Broadway.)
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Finally, it would be wrong to talk about Dear Evan Hansen without discussing the score written by the duo behind the music for La La Land and The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It deservedly won the Tony for Best Original Score. The touring cast's magnificent voices bring these powerful songs to life, especially when harmonizing together.
Those tuned into the world of Broadway or musicals might think Dear Evan Hansen over-hyped. But it's earned the buzz. It resonates and connects as it entertains. As the production itself references, today's world is oversaturated with content, which has led to fleeting attention spans. When something new comes along, it's easiest to just digest it quickly and move onto the next new thing. But Dear Evan Hansen deserves a little more than that. As a modern 21st-century musical, it does a great job at realistically portraying contemporary and complex issues that we can all relate to. In one particularly relevant number, Evan sings, "When you're falling in a forest and there's nobody around/Do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?/Did I even make a sound?" Yes. Indeed you did, Evan.
GO! Dear Evan Hansen at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Nov. 25. Centertheatregroup.org/tickets/ahmanson-theatre/2018-19/dear-evan-hansen/.