Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Sometimes, life has a way of getting out of control. One tiny lie or misunderstanding spins out into something almost unrecognizable. This is exactly what happens to the title character in DPAC's production of Dear Evan Hansen.
Directed by Michael Greif, this Tony-award winning musical jumps right into the troubled, anxious head of teenage Evan (Ben Levi Ross). At the beginning of the story, viewers quickly learn a few things about Evan: that he (supposedly) fell out of a tree and broke his arm over the summer, that his therapist has tasked him with writing encouraging letters to himself, and that his mom (Jessica Phillips) thinks asking people to sign his cast will be a wonderful way to make friends.
Just as soon as Evan is introduced to the audience, however, the story shifts to focus on Connor (Marrick Smith) and his family. Connor is a brooding, angry teen, a stark contrast to Evan's bumbling nervousness. And, as the smooth-moving play goes on, Connor's and Evan's lives become irrevocably intertwined...and all because of an accident. One of Evan's letters to himself finds its way into the hands of Connor. And, then, when Connor abruptly ends his own life, that letter is mistaken for his suicide note.
What follows is a story that is part statement on social media, part statement on the increasingly lonely nature of our always-online world, and also, at its heart, a story that is just about life and the odd but meaningful twists and turns it sometimes takes in the desperate search for real connection and a sense of home. As Evan's lies dig him deeper and deeper into a relationship with Connor's family, including with Connor's sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna), and a related viral campaign grows around him, everyone will find something and someone to connect with. Writer Steven Levenson has crafted such real, breathing characters, complete with flaws and sensitivities, that it's impossible not to empathize with these characters and the raw emotions that play out on the stage.
Of course, it helps that this production is backed by such a strong cast. Ross is easily a standout with his portrayal of Evan. He stutters, he looks at his feet, and he has just the right amount of awkwardness and sweet vulnerability that it's impossible not to love him, even as his lies grow bigger. In fact, it's even hard to hate his "partner-in-crime" and "family friend," Jared (Jared Goldsmith), whose goofy portrayal makes for some of the show's funnier moments. Also strong here is McKenna's soft, powerfully-voiced Zoe. Not to be outdone by all the young talent on display, the "parents" in this story hold their own as well. Phillips is endearing and sympathetic as Evan's loving but frazzled mom, while Christiane Noll is conversely fragile in her portrayal as Connor's mom. And, Aaron Lazar, with his kind-eyed portrayal as Connor's father, feels like the dad everyone wants to have.
These actors have a killer musical line-up to work with too, not to mention an amazing high-tech set made up of screens reflecting text messages and social media apps. As the set constantly makes its presence known in the background, much like the way these apps and messages are always present in our lives, one perfect song flows into the next, each one conveying deep, real emotions and haunting melodies. "You Will be Found" and "Words Fail" are two of the most poignant and touching in the show. However, another strength is the fact that this production isn't weighed-down with songs. Feeling more like a straight play with a few appropriate songs thrown in than a true musical, Dear Evan Hansen pares down the song list and ups the dialogue and built-in graphics, which is perhaps part of its secret for appealing to teens. For, while there were plenty of older adults in the audience at Tuesday's opening night performance, a large chunk of viewers appeared high school to college age.
As the story plays out to its hopeful-but-honest end, however, it becomes clear that this isn't a story just for or about young people. It's a story about life, about trusting in the journey, pushing through when it's tough, and finding support to lean on where you can. These things, for sure, are things we can all relate to, and they are what makes Dear Evan Hansen one of the most touching and gripping shows to visit the Triangle in quite some time
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