The blockbuster Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen’s first North American touring production opened Tuesday night to a very enthusiastic audience at Heinz Hall. The musical garnered much acclaim at the 2017 Tony Awards ceremony when it was nominated for nine awards, winning six, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations.
High Level of Buzz
The level of buzz for Dear Evan Hansen is almost near Hamilton levels. What makes the musical such a popular production? Like Hamilton, it has a very interesting story. The story is not historical in a national sense like Hamilton, but historical in a human experience sense. The musical’s book is very well written by Steven Levenson. It takes the universal themes of teenagers trying to discover who they are and how they will fit in as they navigate the rapids of high school. Hansen takes these classic themes and ratchets them up in the pressure cooker of modern day social media.
Also like Hamilton, it features a wonderful musical score with meaningful lyrics. I asked the teenaged girl seated next to me, one of many teens in the audience, what she most liked about Hansen. She quickly replied, “The music.” The cast album won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. It entered the Billboard 200 music chart at No. 8, the highest such debut ranking, since 1961, for an original cast recording. Many people have come to know and enjoy Dear Evan Hansen through its songs before learning the full story or seeing a production. The major theme song from the musical, “You Will Be Found,” has been viewed on YouTube almost 12 million times.
The music and lyrics were created by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Pasek created the concept based on his observations during his high school years that after a fellow classmate died, other classmates portrayed themselves as being closer to the deceased classmate than they actually were to better fit in. Pasek and Paul are a strong musical songwriting team. They have worked together on numerous entertainment projects, including the films La La Land and The Greatest Showman.
While Hansen is a serious play that deals with the issues of mental health, suicide, and how one views their own family, it also has very touching emotional scenes and some solid comic relief.
A Person of Letters
As the doors were opened and the audience was let into the seating area of Heinz Hall, onstage there were tall rectangular panels of various widths at different parts of the stage. Projected onto the panels were simulated social media feeds accompanied by beeps and boops.
The first scene of the musical has Evan Hansen, portrayed wonderfully, almost like a teenage Mark Zuckerberg in voice and mannerisms, by Ben Levi Ross. He’s in his bedroom on his laptop. His loving, overworked, and unintentionally neglectful single mom, Heidi, played by the talented Jessica Phillips, speaks to him about the letters his therapist has him writing to himself to overcome his anxiety problems and boost his confidence. The letters to himself all start with the opening “Dear Evan Hansen,” thus the title of the musical.
At school, he has an interaction with the misfit rebel student, Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith). Evan has an arm cast from a recent accident when he climbed high into a tree and fell. Connor notices that no one has signed Evan’s cast, and he does in big letters. They have a misunderstanding, and Connor pushes Evan down.
Connor’s sister, Zoe, witnesses the incident. Maggie McKenna plays the sometimes difficult teen and excels in the acting and singing aspects of the role. Evan then awkwardly speaks to Zoe.
Later at the high school’s printing station, Evan is printing out the latest letter to himself to give to his mom just as Connor rolls by. As soon as the letter is done printing out, Connor grabs it from the printer and starts to read it. He sees that the letter is partly about his sister, Zoe; he then crushes it in his hand and leaves with it.
In the next scene, Evan is called to the principal’s office. There he meets with Connor’s mother, Cynthia (Christiane Noll), and father, Larry (Aaron Lazar). They inform him that Connor has committed suicide. They wanted to inform him personally since they were such good friends. After all, Connor’s suicide note started with “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Evan tries to inform them that he wrote that note to himself, but Mrs. Murphy, not really listening, says how much comfort the note provided her. She didn’t realize that Connor had such a good friend in Evan. Evan sees that despite his efforts to inform them that he hardly knew Connor, he is providing much needed relief to them during their grieving process and plays along. When Mrs. Murphy says that she didn’t realize they were good friends, Evan replies that they were secretive friends and communicated through a private email account.
Mrs. Murphy says that reading their emails would provide additional comfort to her. Evan of course says yes, digging himself in deeper. Realizing he’s now firmly in over his head, he asks his more worldly, but still somewhat nerdy friend Jared Kleinman to help. The role is played brilliantly by Jared Goldsmith, who is reminiscent of the curly-haired, young tech wiz of the Verizon Fios commercials. For a price, Jared helps set up an email account in Connor’s name and writes back-dated emails from Connor to Evan for the Murphys. Jared brings some really funny lines to the production.
Word starts getting around school that Evan and Connor had been very close friends. Evan’s popularity starts to rise. He continues uncomfortably in that role, even though it is helping him gain things that he has desired. Evan is also pushed along by pressure from others. One such pusher is Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe) who has gone from not really knowing if she and Connor had any classes together to definitely having had two classes with him. Alana helps move the plot along.
An interesting subplot is the one involving the two families, both with some dysfunction. In the original Rocky film, Rocky says to his girlfriend, Adrian, “We fill gaps.” He goes on to say that the gaps are that she is smart and he is not, that he is gregarious and she is shy. Each party is providing something missing in the other. It is the same thing in Hansen. Both the Murphy and Hansen families have gaps. Evan needs a father figure and a more attentive mother. The Murphy’s have a need for a loving, respectful son. Evan is trying to fill those gaps. There’s a sweet “father-son” scene when Mr. Murphy gives Evan Connor’s never-been-used baseball mitt. Mr. Murphy and Evan sing the duet “To Break in a Glove.”
Other musical highlights are “Waving Through a Window,” “You Will Be Found,” “Requiem,” and “So Big/So Small.” A touching young love duet, “Only Us,” was beautifully sung by McKenna and Ross. The entire cast demonstrated their fine talent in their singing and acting roles.
Relationships built upon untruths will normally last for only so long before crumbling. Evan’s world starts to unravel and only love can piece it back together. Dear Evan Hansen is a realistic drama about growing up in today’s modern world. It delivers a message of hope that resonates for those who don’t always feel that they fit in. Dear Evan Hansen deserves the buzz it has been receiving.
Dear Evan Hansen’s scenic design (David Korins), projection design (Peter Nigrini), sound design (Nevin Steinberg), and lighting design (Japhy Weideman) all worked to a powerful synergistic effect, especially during heightened periods of social media use during parts of the musical. The production ran smoothly under the direction of Michael Greif. Danny Mefford did the choreography for the production. A small orchestra, located on an upper tier of stage right, provided live music led by Austin Cook. Overall music supervisor/orchestrator is Alex Lacamoire. Costume design is by Emily Rebholz with hair design by David Brian Brown.
The touring production of Dear Evan Hansen is appearing locally under the auspices of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust through its PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh theater series. It’s onstage at Heinz Hall through May 26. The Cultural Trust website shows less than 1% availability left for each show. For tickets, see the Cultural Trust’s website or call the box office at (412) 456-6666. If you’re shut out of the touring show, try entering the ticket lottery, which sets out a limited amount of heavily discounted $25 tickets before each performance. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.