By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
While it hadn’t opened with the same atomic force that Hamilton did the previous year, when the Broadway curtain went up on Dear Evan Hansen in 2016 it was greeted as the next important entry in the ongoing evolution of the American Musical.
Just as Hamilton was rooted in contemporary music and storytelling, Hansen featured a score growing out of pop/rock musical trends. The composers/lyricists, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, had already scored a small success with their off-Broadway show, Dogfight, and were suddenly in the news in 2016 as the writing team behind the songs for the almost-Oscar winning Best Picture, LaLa Land. (The two would also supply the musical numbers for Hugh Jackman’s The Greatest Showman.) They have the ability to write music, like Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda, bridging the gap between popular music and Broadway sounds.
Dear Evan Hansen continues through May 26. Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Downtown. 412/456-6666. www.trustarts.org
And, too, Hansen is a show focused on the lives and issues of contemporary youth. It’s a musical informed by, fueled with and told through social media.
The concept is certainly an interesting one. Evan is the son of a single mom and has been living with crippling social anxiety for years. He barely leaves his room, silently crushes on Zoe, a girl at school and the last time he had to speak in public he hyperventilated so badly he collapsed.
Zoe’s brother Connor is out-of-control stoner and rage freak and very early in the show he becomes a suicide victim. Through an odd series of events, Evan is mistakenly taken to be Connor’s secret best friend. The truth is that the two barely ever exchanged a handful of words ,but Evan allows this small misconception to go uncorrected as a way, he thinks, of bringing comfort to Connor’s parents, Mr. & Mrs. Murphy.
No good deed goes unpunished, of course, and this private white lie takes on a life of its own. Soon students who didn’t know Connor, or who hated him, are suddenly all over Facebook grieving the loss of this “paragon” while Evan and a few fellow classmates begin a project commemorating Connor. This leads to a video going viral and suddenly Evan is as the center of a white-hot internet event over which he has no control.
The first national tour hits Pittsburgh with an outstanding cast of highly skilled performers directed by Michael Greif and choreographed by Danny Mefford. The company is every bit as slick as the highly polished and enormously impressive set by David Korins and Peter Nigrini’s masterful production design.
Ben Levi Ross is the totality of all human need encapsulated in one human being. He excels at the tricky task of making a passive, reactive character the driving force of the storytelling … and his singing is incredibly powerful. Maggie McKenna as Zoe and Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe playing two classmates get a chance to uncork strong, moving voices as well. Goldsmith’s character has most of the laugh lines which are delivered impeccably and Marrick Smith finds the right balance in his role as Connor/Dream Connor.
Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll and Jessica Phillips play the adults (the Murphys and Evan’s mom respectively) and each finds their own particular way to bring forward all the anguish threatening to drown their characters.
If Dear Evan Hansen were a long one-act instead of the two and three-quarter hours it is, I might be persuaded to join in the general hosannas the show has engendered, even winning the Tony for Best Musical. But I have to admit that somewhere in the second act I just checked out.
I have no way of knowing but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, at some point, Hansen began life as a screenplay and then turned into a stage production, Steven Levenson is the book writer. The show is told almost entirely through two-character scenes. Again and again it’s two people talking to each other about their endlessly unhappy lives. Always. Every moment. Start to finish. All eight of them are, in one way or another, walking open wounds and each is as nauseatingly verbal about it as the next one. And simply because I’m a Processed City Bitch® I really just stopped caring. “I’m lonely,” they’d say. “I’m unloved,” they moan. “My life’s a buffet of pain,” they’d sing.
“Hello?!?” I yelled. “Down here! On the aisle! Row J!” But they didn’t stop.
The music, a lot more electronic than what I normally like, was fairly interesting for a couple of numbers. But after a while it all began to sound the same and each time someone really went for the gold and opened up about their emptiness you knew another power ballad was just around the corner. Like I said, if it hadn’t have been nearly three hours long I might not have had as much trouble staying connected with the material … but it wasn’t and I did.
I should say, however, that this might be my reaction alone. I noticed a lot of red-eyed, damp-faced people in skinny jeans around me and they seemed gobsmacked by the sheer humanity of it all. I hope the dear things made it home okay … life must be overwhelming for them.