Photo by Evan Zimmerman
Once again, Center Theatre Group is welcoming another major pre-pandemic hit back home as the Best Musical Tony-winning Dear Evan Hansen retakes the Ahmanson stage through July. As much as I loved this groundbreaking production in its first stop here in 2018, LA is chockful of theatrical openings and offerings this long hot summer so I will not be returning to the Music Center for another ride. As with the recent return engagement to the venue of Come From Away, however, I was happy to agree to reprint my original review, which went on to become my choice for Best Musical Production in my annual TicketHolders Awards for 2018, as well as honoring Ben Levi Ross as Best Actor, Jessica Phillips as Best Supporting Actress, and receiving nominations for its Score, Book, Direction, Ensemble, Set, Lighting, Sound, Musical Direction, and CGI/Video design.
In other words, I encourage you not to miss the opportunity to catch this nearly perfect musical while it’s back for another joyous run, now featuring Anthony Norman in the title role, Coleen Sexton as his mother, Lili Thomas as Cynthia Murphy, Pablo Laucerica as Jared, Micaela Lamas as Alana, John Hemphill as Larry Murphy, Nikhil Saboo as Connor, and Alaina Anderson as Zoe.
Reprinted from August 20, 2018:
Well, of course I did know there had to have been a good reason why Dear Evan Hansen was nominated for nine Tony Awards in 2016 and won six, including Best Musical and Best Score. For some reason, it stayed off my radar despite my lingering curiosity, but I’ve gotta tell ya: when Peter Marks of the Washington Post referred to the production’s pre-Broadway run at D.C.’s Arena Stage as “one of the most remarkable shows in musical theater history,” he wasn’t just being grandiose.
With a wonderfully insightful and intelligent book by Steven Levenson and a breathtaking score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight, A Christmas Story: the Musical, The Greatest Showman, and the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning composers of La La Land), to simply say experiencing Dear Evan Hansen provides an amazing journey of the heart and soul is a terrible understatement. I have been involved in musical theatre since I first got hooked singing about carrots and per’taters in a tour of Oklahoma! at age 6 and I can truly say without a puff on my omnipresent peacepipe that DEH, as its creators call it, immediately goes directly into my personal top ten list of my favorite musicals of all time.
Poor nerdy 17-year-old Evan (LA’s own Ben Levi Ross, the heart and soul of this production) is grappling with extreme and well-medicated anxiety issues as he struggles through high school, so painfully shy he often goes hungry rather than order dinner for himself at home—even online, as he’d have to deal with delivery people and the awkward silence that inevitably ensues while the driver counts out his change.
Evan’s mother Heidi (the also dynamic Jessica Phillips) is struggling as well, trying to raise a difficult kid on her own while holding down a grueling job at a hospital where layoffs are becoming all too frequent and also taking classes to better her situation as a single parent by becoming a paralegal. She agonizes that she has so little time with her son, overcompensating for her prolonged absences from their home by printing out scholarship writing contests that might enable Evan to go to college.
The lonely Evan’s therapist suggests he create letters addressed to himself between visits explaining his feelings, since the boy is a far better writer than a conversationalist. At school, where he exists in a perpetual state of staring at the pavement and hanging his head low so he won’t have to interact with anyone else, he prints out one of those letters in the computer lab. When his letter is commandeered by a miserable, perpetually angry goth student named Connor (Marrick Smith), creeped out because it mentions Evan’s massive crush on his sister Zoey (Maggie McKenna), Evan is mortified.
His mortification turns to horror when several days later he is called into the principal’s office and is met by Connor’s parents (Aaron Lazar and Jekyll and Hyde’s memorable Christiane Noll) with his letter in hand and demanding an explanation. Beginning as instructed by his therapist with “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Murphys believe Connor actually was the one who wrote the letter to him and that their uncommunicative and troubled offspring actually had a secret friend about whom they knew nothing. This is important to them not only because Connor never seemed to have friends, but because the day before they discovered the letter in his jacket pocket, the kid had taken his own life.
With the help of his sarcastic “family friend” Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith), Evan creates a whole story behind the friendship that never was in a series of fake emails an effort to help the family heal—and get to know Zoey, the object of his teenaged worship, a little better. The lie compounds into other lies until soon, the Murphys start treating him as if he’s their son, Zoey puts out for her brother’s bestie, and Evan is forced to give a dreaded speech about his lost “friend” at a school memorial for Connor organized by his fellow outcast classmate Alana (Phoebe Koyabe).
His speech begins with Evan painfully stammering and stuttering as he fumbles through a jumble of 3 x 5 index cards held in front of his face, but then quickly goes viral on social media when he breaks down during the talk and ends up delivering an impassioned plea for acceptance that reaches all angst-ridden marginalized teenagers everywhere. Some $50,000 is subsequently raised to take an abandoned apple orchard he has fabricated into the place where he and Connor would meet, turning it into a community park called the Connor Murphy Memorial Gardens.
Of course, Evan’s elaborate fantasy has to unravel or there would be no story. The results are emotionally catastrophic for both the kid and the Ahmanson’s by-now sobbing sea of audience members dreading the inevitable as they watch Evan’s new happy, finally fulfilled, xanax-free world crumble. Still, as kleenex-inducing as all this is and as somber and serious are the themes of teenaged alienation and suicide may be, Levenson’s brilliant book is anything but a downer; it is somehow uplifting and, honestly, often hilariously funny in a skewed bedside manner kinda way.
And as perfect as director Michael Greif’s staging proves to be and as impressive as is the work of the production’s top-drawer design team, there’s no conceivable way Dear Evan Hansen could possibly succeed without two things: a knockout young actor as incredibly charismatic as Ross—who gives the musical theatre performance of the year in LA—and the indelible, sweeping, incredibly complex and evocative score by Pasek and Paul that is simply one for the ages.
Though Ross never leaves the stage for a moment (so exhausting it explains why Stephen Christopher Anthony plays the role four times a week), the supporting cast is uniformly magnificent, each possessed of a voice that could individually rock any concert stage in the world. Ross is especially exciting early on in the musical with his showstopping solo “For Forever,” which generated so much response from the audience the show had to halt for a spell while the clapping subsided, while Phillips’ heartbreaking eleventh-hour ballad “So Big/So Small” later challenged it on the applause meter. My personal favorite number, however, is “Just Us,” the gossamer, haunting duet between blossoming lovers Ross and McKenna which just might become my favorite love song ever.
It was interesting to see how liberally the usual opening night Ahmanson audience was peppered with teenaged boys accompanying one parent or the other. After seeing it all unfold, I assume the reason for this influx of youthful testosterone was due to people familiar with the production’s history and acclaim who have read that, although dealing with serious issues so vitally important to young people as our country and world gets booted into the shitcan of history, they are handled not only with grace but with a joyful and positive this-too-shall-pass message.
Dear Evan Hansen offers the kind of inspiration capable of changing a life if heard at a time such as this, a time when it’s so desperately needed to help encourage and empower the children of today and aid in the survival of this next generation in ways we cannot even possibly imagine.
THROUGH JULY 31: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org