Some musicals are all about the entertainment. You expect to see some awesome dancing, amazing singing, and leave the theater smiling (see my review of Disney’s Aladdin, also currently playing at the Kennedy Center). You may remember the happy feeling of seeing the show a few years later, but there will have been no lasting impact on your life. Dear Evan Hansen, the 2017 Tony Award-Winning Best Musical, is not that type of musical. Instead, it is a poignant and heart-wrenching look at human relationships and it is guaranteed to stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.
With a book by Tony Award-winning playwright Steven Levenson, music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the team who brought both La La Land and The Greatest Showman to theaters, and direction by 4-time Tony nominee Michael Greif, the show had star credentials even before its opening night, and has been a sold-out sensation since its move to Broadway (it originated here in DC at the Arena Stage in 2015). With an overarching theme of disconnect in an increasingly connected world, this is a musical for modern audiences, and both teens and adults will relate to the drama unfolding in the lives of the show’s title character, Evan Hansen, a socially awkward teen just trying to make it through the day, and those around him.
Exploring the perennial motifs of loneliness, abandonment, peer pressure, and friendship, the story of Dear Evan Hansen begins when Evan, a teenager with social anxiety issues, writes a note to himself as directed by his therapist. He begins the note, “Dear Evan Hansen” and signs it “Sincerely, Me.” The note is stolen by Connor Murphy, a classmate with social problems of his own, who then commits suicide. After finding the note in Connor’s pocket, Connor’s parents believe that Connor wrote the note to Evan and that the two were friends. Unable to tell Connor’s grieving family the truth, Evan starts down a path of lies that will have consequences for both Evan and the Murphy family.
The story perfectly encapsulates today’s culture of never-ending connectedness through the internet while individual people feel lost or “forgotten,” as if they could disappear and no one would notice.
The role of Evan Hansen requires strong acting and singing skills and Ben Levi Ross is up to the task, holding the audience in the palm of his hand from the first minute of the show. Ross masterfully plays the role of a misfit among misfits (his only two “friends,” Alana and Jared are also on the nerdy side with social issues of their own) but visibly grows more confident as the story progresses. He guides the audience through Evan’s growth from a scared kid on the verge of doing something terrible to a confident young man able to face whatever challenges might come his way.
The cast is small but mighty with excellent performances all around. Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy expertly juggles the emotional roller coaster of being the sister of a not-so-beloved brother who is suddenly gone and Jessica Phillips is perfect as Evan’s mom, Heidi, who is struggling to connect with her son and have him connect with others. Connor’s mom, well-played by Christiane Noll, has already missed the opportunity to connect with her son and Noll plays the role with an undercurrent of grief that is difficult to miss.
Showstopping songs in Dear Evan Hansen include “You Will Be Found,” “Waving Through a Window” (a remixed version of this song hit number 1 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart), and “If I Could Tell Her,” but really all the songs in this show feel necessary to the story and not thrown in for effect.
The orchestra, led by Music Director / Conductor/ Keyboardist Alex Harrington sounds wonderful in the smaller space of the Eisenhower Theater. (As a side note, I wondered about the Kennedy Center’s decision to perform Dear Evan Hansen in the smaller theater and not the Opera House given the popularity of the show, but after seeing the production, I think the more intimate space and better sound quality was an excellent choice for this particular musical.)
There aren’t a lot of tickets left for this stellar production, but if you can snag one, do it. You need to be found at the Kennedy Center’s Dear Evan Hansen.
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Dear Evan Hansen plays through September 8, 2019, at the Eisenhower Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts–2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-467-4600 or go online.