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Dear Evan Hansen Strikes a Chord by Exploring High School and Social Media

The Tony Award-winning millennial musical hits Los Angeles.

Ben Levi Ross, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll, and Maggie McKenna in a scene from Dear Evan Hansen tour, directed by Michael Greif.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Young Evan Hansen has broken his arm. Before the Tony winning musical Dear Evan Hansen ends, the titular character will also have broken many hearts in this poignant, topical drama about isolation in high school and how social media takes an already stressful situation and heightens it by exposing and recording all of life's foibles small and large. The tour production features a talented cast of newcomers and Broadway regulars, anchored by an absorbing performance by Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen.

Evan Hansen starts his senior year as he has every year, friendless and lonely. Over the summer, he somehow fell out of a tree and sports an arm cast, but he doesn't have the confidence to even engage with other kids by asking them to sign his cast. Tragedy strikes at the school and suddenly, Evan finds himself at the center of a social media storm, making him popular and beloved. But it all rests on a lie, one that could destroy the already fragile youth.

Steven Levenson's book is one of the strongest written for a musical in a long time. He shapes well-explored characters with dialogue that rings true. He mixes pain and humor adroitly. Evan is someone with whom audiences can identify. He's a lovable weirdo, filled with angst. He makes many bad decisions but often with the best intentions. Levenson also taps into the zeitgeist of a society desperate for unity when so many people are ruthlessly trying to rip the country apart. He shows the fickle natures of the online mob, empowering and loving one moment, and ugly the next, ripping strangers to shreds without any sense or desire for the facts.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's score complements these characterizations, and the conversational songs enrich the performances. In "So Big/So Small," mother and son attempt to heal years of wounds. "To Break a Glove" shows Evan and a surrogate father's attempts to bond. And the breezy "Sincerely, Me" shows us Evan and his friend Jared writing fake emails.

Ross invests himself completely in the title character, projecting someone so brittle, he could crack at any moment. He juts out his head like a turtle, and when flustered, he struggles to get his words out. His commanding singing cuts to the core of Evan's insecurities and untapped inner strength. As his overwhelmed mother, Jessica Phillips exemplifies the constant struggle of a single parent keeping family afloat both financially and emotionally while caring for a child who has social anxieties.

At the center of the tragedy is the upper-class Murphy family. Both dysfunctional and well meaning, they provide Evan with emotional support while he offers them comfort. Christiane Noll plays Cynthia Murphy and Aaron Lazar as her husband Larry Murphy. Together, the pair clarify that sometimes love alone cannot protect a family. Maggie McKenna, as their daughter, Zoe, beautifully sings two songs about loss and rebirth. Jared Goldsmith is hilarious as Evan's begrudgingly friendly classmate, who says he only pals with Evan because their parents are friends, yet immediately jumps into Evan's schemes, refusing to admit to himself that he really likes hanging out with the awkward guy. As Evan's classmate, Connor, someone considered a loose cannon by his classmates and family, Marrick Smith exudes the consternation of an adolescent who suffers from depression and cannot control his mood swings.

Director Michael Greif with his choreographer, Danny Mefford, stages the characters so that they're often surrounding Evan like a whirlpool, engulfing him. Despite the lack of traditional dancing, the actors' movements produce a visual percussion. The costumes by Emily Rebholz are appropriate for the modern-day teenager. Set design David Korins keeps it low-key, allowing the main focus to be on the detailed projections by Peter Nigrini. Text messages, tweets, and instagrams fill every spot on the scrim, visualizing how the Internet has invaded the modern family and the world at large.

Dear Evan Hansen, powerful and resonant, acts as a catharsis for all audience members who have ever felt the weight of the world coming down on their shoulders.

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