A Heartfelt Message
A teenage loner learns to let down his mask in "Dear Evan Hansen," a touching examination of adolescent loss.
Row upon row of social-media websites frame the otherwise simple set of Dear Evan Hansen, coursing across the stage in a translucent film-reel blur. The nattering sites reappear throughout the musical, like a 21st-century version of those morose, Borg-hive choruses that hovered in the background of ancient Greek dramas.
The difference is that in this drama, the omnipresent internet chatterbox will soon assume a leading role.
It’s all part of the ingenious balance of this sweetly compelling portrait of adolescent angst, in the form of an all-too-common tragedy and a lonely misfit’s masquerade, which opened this week at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
Evan, a sensitive, intelligent teen who’s so painfully lonely and insecure he’s on meds and in therapy, gets caught up in the spokes of a runaway subterfuge when he is taken for the only friend of a drugged-out, anti-social high-school classmate named Connor who has just committed suicide.
In truth, their connection wasn’t friendly but fleeting: Connor had bullied Evan and impulsively snatched a letter from him—an introspective, cheer-up letter that Evan had written to himself as part of his therapy.
When the letter, addressed “Dear Evan Hansen,” is found on the dead boy’s body, it’s taken as a suicide note; classmates and Connor’s grieving parents assume the pair had been close friends; and Evan finds himself the beneficiary of a morose brand of instant celebrity. As much to console everyone else as to extend his own suddenly-elevated social status, he plays along. Soon he is the point man for a tragedy turned into an inspirational rallying point. Then the internet plays its part.
Evan and Connor do, in fact, have more in common than anyone could have suspected. That’s just one of the interlaced ironies that lends tensile strength to this musical, a collaborative effort by songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul in tandem with playwright Steven Levenson.
The idea for the story came to Pasek, who was intrigued by the reaction to a suicide at his own high school. Though the student who took his life had been a loner, Pasek remembers noticing how classmates, in their reaction to the tragedy, dwelled on whatever connection they had with him, however superficial or fleeting. Personalizing the tragedy was their way of coping with it.
What’s amazing about Dear Evan Hansen is that it finds a way to do just that on stage—to personalize how a tragedy is internalized, and not just to those at its center. Given the delicate subject, the enterprise could have veered out of control as easily as Evan’s masquerade does. Instead, it generates an authentic intimacy via a combination of heart, humor, insight, a winsome score and some savvy stagecraft.
This is the sort of musical that doesn’t overwhelm with grandness of scale but sidles up to you and makes friends gradually by offering up a few thoughtful gifts. There’s a gently artful touch and an early element of healing, for example, in having Connor make a soothing, posthumous reappearance: He bullied Evan in life, but as a ghost seen only to Evan he’s had a wardrobe makeover and a haircut and has been transformed into a likable ally, offering wise advice and moral support, like an adolescent version of Hamlet’s father’s ghost.
The show, which earned six Tonys on Broadway and has been optioned as a motion picture, is a decided contrast to the previous two musicals in the Fairwinds Broadway in Orlando series—the sprawling historical power of Hamilton, the old-school bombast of the Fiddler on the Roof revival.
Here, instead, there’s homeyness. A small orchestra is tucked high into a corner of the set, as if the music is drifting down from an upstairs bedroom. The cast is an intimate ensemble—just Evan, his mother, his only real (if persistently disparaging) friend, a classmate who worms her way into the cause, Connor, and Connor’s sister and parents.
As Evan, Ben Levi Ross uses body language as much as a finely honed voice to convey the depths of his loneliness and the struggle with his conscience once his counterfeit efforts slip away. Jared Goldsmith is aptly snarky as the caustic friend and co-conspirator in the masquerade. Both mothers—Jessica Phillips as Evan’s, Christina Noll as Connor’s—are adept at conveying the parallel puzzlement of adults drawn into the terrors of being teen.
And that’s the through-line of Dear Evan Hansen: A tragedy levels the playing field. To be of any use to one another, everyone involved has to process it on their own terms. When the Evan Hansen actors sing, even to one another, they often turn toward the audience, as if to say: You’re as much a part of this as we are.
Dear Evan Hansen continues through Sunday at the Dr. Phillips Center. For ticket availability, click here.