Theater review: Dear Evan Hansen at the Peace Center
Edwin Arnaudin: Dear Evan Hansen may not have inspired a Peace Center ticket-buying frenzy on the level of last December's Hamilton run, but it's easily the most highly anticipated offering on the performance venue’s 2019 schedule. Does the 2017 Tony-winner for Best Musical warrant the hype?
Bruce Steele: It does. Most remarkably, for a show closely associated with its original lead performer — Ben Platt won a Tony for playing the title role on Broadway — the national tour has an Evan every bit up to filling Platt's sneakers. Ben Levi Ross, who understudied all three young male parts in the Broadway production, has a powerful and expressive voice and captures the teen’s painful angst perfectly. Did he impress you as he did me?
Edwin: Absolutely. The young man can sing with the best and rattle off long, breathless, comedically neurotic sentences like peak-form Jesse Eisenberg. Honestly, there’s no weak link in this eight-person cast and each character leaves a mark. Were other performances nearly on Ross’ level for you?
Bruce: Jessica Phillips, as Evan's mom, Heidi, can be heartbreaking — and also has a stunning voice. Heidi has the difficult job of trying to seem upbeat with a troubled, antisocial teenager whose nervous loneliness is helped by neither therapy nor medications, and Phillips is so recognizable and loving and desperate, all at once. She even gets the show's potent penultimate song to herself, "So Big/So Small." Indeed, the strength of the cast, and of the show, is how familiar everyone onstage is, don't you think?
Edwin: The reliability factor is Dear Evan Hansen’s major strength for me. Credit goes to introductory scenes at the Hansen home and that of his schoolmates Zoe (Maggie McKenna) and Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), which intelligently establish two families broken in different ways. And as you noted at its conclusion, the production does a fine job of depicting a full, bustling high school with merely the above three teens and Evan’s acquaintances Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith, whose delightful, maniacal cackle cracked me up every time) and Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe), thereby bringing to mind one’s own adolescence. I just wish all this hard work was in the service of better storytelling.
Bruce: This show is clearly the Rent of the post-Millennial generation. It was even directed by Rent’s original director, the ever inventive Michael Greif, with songs from the most heralded tune team of the moment, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman), and a book by Steven Levenson (Fosse/Verdon). The show speaks directly to teens and 20-somethings in a way Disney and Rodgers and Hammerstein can't, and it was great to see so many youthful faces in the Peace Center audience. But while Rent cribbed its complex conflicts from La Boheme, Dear Evan Hansen is a simpler original story about a boy who escapes his crippling introversion by inventing a friendship he never had with Connor, a classmate who has killed himself. I gather the story didn't work so well for you.
Edwin: I kept waiting for it to hit a higher seriocomic level, but it’s built on such a flimsy premise that it can only reach so high. We’re supposed to believe that friendless Evan is so isolated and secretive that he can concoct this lie and no one will question it. There’s decent credulity in his ability to fool Connor’s grieving parents Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar), who’ll take any glimmer of hope they can get, and then there’s the convenience of Heidi seemingly always being away at work, unaware of her son’s doings and thereby unable to expose the hoax. There’s an appealing energy as Evan builds the fabrication and at last finds himself part of a family, but the wait for the inevitable unraveling is drawn out to numbing effects and the bean-spilling itself rings hollow for me.
Bruce: I never doubted the story line, especially as it builds through Act One to the anthemic finale, "You Will Be Found" — a terrific song that's powerful both on its face and because its optimism is built on a lie. Everyone is projecting their own hopes onto Evan and his invented narrative, and given the general credulity of many people for what they "see" online, I thought Dear Evan Hansen captured our cultural moment. The unraveling in Act Two is not as tightly written as the first act, and the first several songs aren't as compelling — the worshipful tune to a baseball glove speaks to a limited father-son audience — but it builds speed and drama to an intense climax and touching coda. I see Dear Evan Hansen in part as an ode to the imagination, so if yours wandered, I can understand how the emotional thread lost you. But the show stimulated my imagination throughout, particularly in the way its minimal staging recreated a whole suburban world.
Edwin: I kept thinking the video screens dominating Peter Nigrini’s striking production design would play a more integral role and essentially become a character — but like most of Dear Evan Hansen, their email and social media projections wind up being good ideas with mediocre execution. Nearly all of the components feel like early drafts, as if they’re still in the workshopping phase, including the songs from Pasek and Paul, operating somewhere between my beloved La La Land and the loathsome The Greatest Showman. Their ambiguous nods to mid/late ‘90s pop radio are pleasant enough and first act Evan/Zoe duet “If I Could Tell Her” feels ghost-written by my man Ben Folds, but I don't see myself tracking down the original cast recording.
Bruce: I love the Broadway recording, although I sometimes skip past a song or two in an effort to get to my favorites quicker. I also recommend the Owl City cover version of “Waving Through a Window.” It’s a great song that easily stands on its own and also takes on deeper meaning in the context of the show. None of the songs stayed with you?
Edwin: I thought about the far superior and more satisfying Hamilton and Come From Away — which criminally lost Best Musical to this show — so often during the evening that I left the theater with “The Room Where It Happens” in my head. I’m glad you and other audience members are having such powerful, rewarding experiences with Dear Evan Hansen, since it indeed covers important modern topics, but I’m a bit baffled at how it’s become a cultural phenomenon in its current form. Maybe I’m simply in the wrong age demographic for this show to connect with me on the emotional level that it’s hitting so many theatergoers — older than the teens, but not quite into the realm of the parents.
Bruce: That duality of target audiences is indeed key, and I think the show does a great job of reflecting the experiences of both. It is lacking in the character complexity and variety of Come From Away, but I think that’s why it works so well for its fans: It has enough specificity that young people and parents feel directly represented but not so much that it becomes tethered to a certain geographic, political or cultural subgroup. It’s the Everyteen of the 2010s. A slip of paper that fell out of the Peace Center program even introduced Evan understudy Roman Banks, a new member of the touring company who became the first African American lead in the show last December when he stepped into the role for one night on Broadway. Evan Hansen is speaking to a remarkable cross-section of theatergoers. Maybe if you listen a little more closely, he’ll speak to you too.
Dear Evan Hansen is playing through July 7 at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina. For details and tickets, visit peacecenter.org.
(Photos: Matthew Murphy/Courtesy of the Peace Center)