Theater review by Alex Huntsberger
Some shows tug at your heartstrings; Dear Evan Hansen yanks them out of your chest altogether. With a gorgeous, tuneful rock score by composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, an exceptionally multilayered book by Steven Levenson and some flat-out jaw-dropping direction by Michael Greif, this 2016 Broadway sensation is the rare show that makes you tap your toes and reach for a hankie. The national-tour production now playing at the James M. Nederlander Theatre is a powerful, deeply empathic plunge into the messy business of being alive but extremely alone.
Evan (a superb Ben Levi Ross) is a high-school senior in dire need of a friend, but his anxiety keeps him from so much as ordering a pizza. David Korins’s elegantly muted set is doused in social-media projections, intricately designed by Peter Nigrini, that frame Evan’s isolation as a kind of all-encompassing, soul-deep fear of missing out. Per his therapist’s order, Evan writes motivational letters to himself, one of which is pocketed by a troubled classmate named Connor (Marrick Smith); when Connor kills himself, his grief-stricken parents (Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar) reach out to Evan in the false belief that he had been Connor’s friend. Evan can’t bring himself to tell them the truth, and his white lie snowballs into an avalanche: The peppy number “Sincerely, Me” finds Evan roping his sorta-buddy Jared (a very funny Jared Goldsmith) into creating a fake history of email exchange between Evan and Connor; the achingly beautiful anthem “You Will Be Found,” tracks the digital bloom that ensues when a speech he gives in Connor’s memory goes unexpectedly viral.
As Evan reaps the benefits of his new popularity and determination, his better intentions—such as a charity set up in Connor’s name by the overachieving Alana (a pitch-perfect Phoebe Koyabe)—give way to more selfish motivations, including a long-desired romance with Connor’s sister, Zoe (a wonderful Maggie McKenna). What saves him from becoming the villain of his own musical is his lacerating self-awareness—and the love of his mom (a great, emotionally charged Jessica Phillips). Buoyed by Pasek and Paul’s earnestly emotive songs—which offer a perfect blend of rock, pop and musical theater—Dear Evan Hansen is the kind of show that doesn’t come around very often. See it while you can, or risk FOMO of your own.
James M. Nederlander Theatre. Book by Steven Levenson. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. With Ben Levi Ross, Maggie McKenna, Jessica Phillips. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.