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'Dear Evan Hansen' Streams A Painful Picture Of Adolescence In The Internet Age

Ben Levi Ross, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll and Maggie McKenna in "Dear Evan Hansen." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy)
Ben Levi Ross, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll and Maggie McKenna in "Dear Evan Hansen." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy)

In “Dear Evan Hansen,” the circle of hell that is high school becomes a gaping social-media maw. The titular teen of the 2017 Tony-winning musical, which is in its Boston debut at Citizens Bank Opera House (through Aug. 4), finds himself backed into a lie that goes viral, tumbling the already anxious youth into a virtual stream of prolonged panic. It also leads him to internet fame as unlikely as the success of this curiously intimate, original musical by the 30-something team of librettist Steven Levenson and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the latter pair Oscar winners for the ditty "City of Stars" from "La La Land").

“Dear Evan Hansen” is that rare stage musical not based on a book or a film or a cartoon. (In that sense, it reminds me of William Finn’s “Falsettos,” which I also admire.) And while the scenic and production designs (by David Korins and Peter Nigrini, respectively) make for a movable, mutating feast of Facebook feeds and tangled tweets that is mesmerizing to look at, the crisscrossing mix of words, photos, emojis and video also dwarfs the people, and their meager real-life accouterments, on stage — which is, of course, the point.

The cast of the "Dear Evan Hansen" tour. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy)
The cast of the "Dear Evan Hansen" tour. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy)

Yet it is on the human scale that “Dear Evan Hansen” triumphs. At the center of its towering digital dance of posts, likes, shares and fragmented comments is one gangly, troubled teen who feels diminished and invisible — and who yearns to be seen and acknowledged. It is that prototypic combination of doubt and need that makes Evan Hansen so touchingly credible — and sweeps him up on such an increasingly unsurfable, if also exhilarating, wave of improvised deception. In the shadow of a loud, ever-mushrooming virtual world, it is impossible anymore to live a life of quiet desperation.

What happens is this: Evan, an isolated, floundering kid whose conversation is a mix of “Rain Man”-like staccato bursts and self-effacing cringes, has been sent to a therapist by his harried, worried but seldom available mom, Heidi. As part of his treatment, he has been assigned to write himself the epistolary pep talks whose salutation forms the musical’s title. When a likewise alienated but much meaner kid named Connor Murphy discovers one of these self-directed missives in the printer of the high school computer lab, he taunts Evan with it, then pockets it (it contains an embarrassing encomium to Evan’s secret crush, Zoe, who is Connor’s sister).

After Connor takes his own life (it bothers me some that teen suicide is reduced to a plot device here), his devastated parents, Larry and Cynthia, find the letter, which they assume was written by their son to the pal they didn’t know he had. Confused and mortified when they reach out to him, and wishing to help assuage their grief while garnering himself a soupçon of attention (and easier access to Zoe), Evan plays along, clumsily connecting dots to form a dewy portrait of a close but secret friendship rooted in a shared love of trees. Soon the whole high school, and then the virtual universe, is caught up in an elaborate web of phony, self-interested grief that morphs from school project to YouTube to Kickstarter with Evan as its hapless poster boy.

It is the show’s genius to create an intricately locked chain of events in which this journey of guilt, misunderstanding and false comfort seems credible — and emotionally quite sincere. There is one somewhat snarky teen, Evan’s worldlier chum Jared, a Bad Idea Bear straight out of “Avenue Q” who helps him to embellish his deception through backdated emails. But for the most part, the compounding anguish in “Dear Evan Hansen” is neither cheaply sentimental nor winked at but both plausible and earned. The whole heartfelt musical is like a life raft thrown to drowning loners everywhere, a note in a bottle promising — as the anthemic first-act finale has it — that “You Will Be Found.”

Director Michael Greif (“Rent” and the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Man in the Ring”) helms a tight, fluid, never maudlin production filled with implicit rather than hammered questions about human failings magnified by internet genies that cannot be squeezed back into their lamps. And the team of Pasek and Paul provides a gentle if catchy score rooted in real feelings, from outsider angst to male bonding to tentative romance. Alex Harrington conducts a small orchestra dominated by keyboards and guitar. And the singing is clear and melodious rather than showboating. Amusingly, in a show with so many teen characters, the hardest-rocking number, “Good for You,” is spearheaded by Evan’s angry mom, who leads a cabal that, as the kid twists his bogus bromance into ever more complicated knots, finally turns on him.

In the title role, Ben Levi Ross is possessed of a sweet gawkiness, a body language whose signature is mortification and a lovely tenor that soars effortlessly into falsetto — like an adolescent voice, or a heart, cracking. As his love interest, Zoe, Maggie McKenna acts with refreshing naturalness and sings very prettily. Jessica Phillips is tender and feisty as Evan’s mom, trying to ford the chasm between her and her son, only to find another family has coopted him. And as the bereaved but volatile Larry and Cynthia, Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll serve up aptly muted portraits of pain.

Ben Levi Ross and Jessica Phillips in "Dear Evan Hansen." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy)
Ben Levi Ross and Jessica Phillips in "Dear Evan Hansen." (Courtesy Matthew Murphy)

Marrick Smith is an explosive presence as Connor, alive or dead, engaging posthumously with Ross’ Evan and Jared Goldsmith’s devilish Jared in a chest- and fist-bumping dance to the snappily upbeat “Sincerely, Me.” As tyrannous high-school uber-organizer Alana, Phoebe Koyabe is the epitome of hanger-on grief, repeatedly describing her relationship to Connor as one of “close acquaintance.” As genuinely moving and tuned to the zeitgeist as “Dear Evan Hansen” is, it needs a little levity. And in Goldsmith and Koyabe’s mischievous portraits of teens less “broken” than Evan, it gets it.


"Dear Evan Hansen" is at the Citizens Bank Opera House through Aug. 4.

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Carolyn Clay Theater Critic
Carolyn Clay, a theater critic for The ARTery, was for many years theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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