It would be easy to reduce Dear Evan Hanson to the first musical for the digital generation. The set is full of transparent screens which display calls, texts, emails, online videos and social-media posts. The characters are all high-school students struggling to fit in and parents struggling to connect. The plot is driven by all of the above. But that novelty is not what earned it six Tony Awards in 2017. Steven Levenson’s honest and affecting story about youth depression and anxiety paired with the powerful original songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul took the play from its Washington, D.C., origins to the Broadway stage, where it’s now spent two and a half years in the Music Box Theatre.
The musical relies heavily on the portrayal of its title character, first played by Ben Platt on and off Broadway. Seeing the play for the first time on its initial US tour, it’s suddenly difficult for me to imagine anyone but Ben Levi Ross in the role. His comic timing and pathos as an anxious, depressive teenager are only surpassed by how that all comes through in his soaring vocals. To play a character who’s shunned as an outcast but also empathetic in the face of his own horrendous mistakes isn’t easy, but Ross seems born to play the part.
The other standout is Jessica Phillips as Evan’s mom, Heidi, a role originated by Broadway veteran Jennifer Laura Thompson. Phillips’ exasperation, desperation and steady love are key to the story, and again it comes through in her vocals.
It’s a tear-jerker of a tale, but the heartache feels earned, not maudlin or forced. Many of us remember the pain of being on the outside looking in during that weird, amped-up time of life and can feel how deep the hurting goes when it feels like there’s not a soul on earth who understands you or cares about you. Having that amplified in the social-media era is hard to even imagine, but Dear Evan Hansen helps you try with songs like “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever” and “Anybody Have a Map?” I can’t remember a time when impassioned choruses and dramatic key changes felt so appropriate.
With most of the plot based on a reluctant lie, the audience is waiting for the expected resolution, but wondering how the mess it caused can possibly be cleaned up. Thankfully, Levenson never reaches for easy answers or tidy resolutions. The ending feels real and appropriate with growth subtle and internalized. It feels like life.
It’s a heavy story. It’s moving and powerful. You’ll be glad you saw it.