REVIEW: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Explores Grief with Gorgeous Score

“Dear Evan Hansen” is at the Peace Center through July 7. Photo by Matthew Murphy

BY DR. KATE ROARK
DRAMA CRITIC

Have you ever lied to a grieving person to make them feel better?

The Tony-winnning Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hansen follows the titular high school boy’s well-intentioned lies as they snowball out of control. Without giving too much away, Evan Hansen’s lies are motivated by wanting to comfort the family of a classmate who committed suicide, Connor Murphy. An unusual premise for a musical, to be sure, yet Dear Evan Hansen connects with anyone who has ever felt socially awkward and alone, and especially with teen/young adult audiences who’ve grown up immersed in social-media, which is an integral part of the plot.

Going into the performance I knew very little about this innovative little musical (only 8 cast members) except that it dealt with the theme of teenage suicide and that it has a devoted fan following. The opening night performance at the Peace Center was flawlessly executed, and there wasn’t a dry eye at intermission after the Act 1 finale of “You Will Be Found.”

Overall Dear Evan Hansen delivered top-notch performances, beautiful music which I can’t stop replaying on Spotify, and a lot to think about. And yet, on a few levels Dear Evan Hansen missed the mark for me. I grew tired of the video projection (Peter Negrini), which was the major scenic element and while it was interesting at first, it got stale by Act 2.

And the movement during the songs (you couldn’t really call it dance) felt uninspired. While the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were gorgeous and deeply emotional, I was less impressed with the book by Steven Levenson. The snowballing lies plot felt “cringy,” as my teen son would say, and I’m troubled by the final judgement that the lies had a net positive effect on the grieving family.

In fact the score and book seem to contradict each other, as in the song “You Will Be Found,” which is exactly what didn’t happen for Evan Hansen or the boy who committed suicide, Connor Murphy.

That said, Dear Evan Hansen has heart, and I’d see it again just to hear the excellent score performed by this cast and orchestra, especially Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen. I honestly can’t imagine anyone better than Ben Levi Ross in the title role of Evan Hansen. Ross joined the Broadway Dear Evan Hansen cast in 2017, and lucky for us all he is also on this first National tour because he is utterly charming as an actor and over the past couple years he’s achieved perfection in this role. Ross reminded me of Michael Cera (Arrested Development) in his realistic and endearing expression of Evan Hansen’s social anxiety. And the challenges of this role are not small — as Evan is on stage 90% of the time and singing lead or solo on “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever,” “You Will Be Found,” and “Words Fail,” as well as three duets and other cast members. You’ll kick yourself if you don’t catch this rising star while he’s here in Greenville!

It’s impossible not to empathize with Jessica Phillips as Evan’s single-mother, Heidi Hansen. Phillips conveys in every word and gesture the struggle of trying to be everything her troubled teenage son needs while working full-time and going to school. Though I found Phillips’ acting flawless, her singing was a tad too nasal for me in “Anybody Have a Map,” and “Good For You.” Phillips rendition of “So Big/So Small” brings the house down at the end of the show.

Marrick Smith plays Connor Murphy, the pot-smoking boy with severe anger management problems who committs suicide and sets the plot in motion. Though Connor’s suicide is early in the plot, Smith returns multiple times to personify Hansen’s thoughts, and it is a delight to watch Smith in these contrasting roles. Smith is utterly charming in the most upbeat song in the score, “Sincerely Me.”

Maggie McKenna plays Connor’s sister Zoe, and the longtime crush of Evan Hansen who has never found the courage to speak to her before Connor’s death. McKenna’s powerful and heart-felt vocals in “Requiem” was one of my favorite moments in the show, as Zoe and her parents explore their complicated feelings about Connor’s death.

Connor’s parents, portrayed by Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll, have a crumbling marriage from the stress of trying to manage Connor’s mental illness. Evan Hansen is drawn to Connor’s family because they represent everything he wishes he had; a mom who cooks dinner, a dad who wants to play catch, and the girl he’s had a secret crush on. Conversely Evan gives Connor’s family a happy fantasy of the son they lost. As Connor’s father, Aaron Lazar broke my heart in “To Break in a Glove” sharing fatherly advice with Evan Hansen and thereby filling a gaping need for both characters, to father and be fathered.

Rounding out the cast are two of Evan’s high-school acquaintances who join forces with Evan to form the Connor Project, a high school club/online movement to make sure Connor isn’t forgotten. They are Jared Kleinman (played by Jared Goldsmith) and Alana Beck (played by Phoebe Koyabe). These characters are almost as lonely as Evan Hansen, and Goldsmith and Koyabe deliver nuanced and realistic performances, capturing the instantaneous shifts between teenage bravado and insecurity.

Don’t miss Dear Evan Hansen, on its first National tour at the Peace Center this weekend. The emotional score and powerful performances in this innovative musical are a must-see for any musical theatre fan. While I found the ethics of the plot troubling, perhaps that was the point and I enjoy a musical that inspires me to think deeply about its themes.

Dear Evan Hansen continues through Sunday, July 7 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main St. in Greenville. Call (864) 467-3000 or visit www.peacecenter.org.

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