I have seen studies claiming that the majority of adolescents go through their teenage years with little distress. I have never taken those studies seriously. The job of the adolescent is to separate and individuate him or herself and that is not easy. One of the characters in “Evan Hansen “ says, “the only people who are happy in high school are the cheerleaders and football players and they don’t amount to anything after.” From the mouth of babes comes truth.
In addition to adolescence, Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross) is a high school student burdened with a crippling level of social anxiety. He cannot speak to anyone lest his hands sweat heavily and he can barely get a word out. His life is spent friendless, largely on his bed, on his computer. His well-meaning, single mom works all day and goes to school at night, fretting that he’s not eating and not with other kids. Predictably it only makes things worse. Evan goes to a shrink and takes medication. The shrink gives him the assignment to write himself a letter of affirmation each day: ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ it goes, ‘today is going to be an awesome day’ – and so on and so forth. Evan is a good kid. He does the assignment. The results, predictably, ring hollow.
It is the beginning of his senior year. He cannot get up the courage to speak with the girl he pines for, Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna). He is in the computer lab, hiding from the other students and writing one of his assigned “Dear Evan Hansen” missives when sullen bully, Connor Murphy, brother of the afore mentioned Zoe, walks into the lab, knocks Evan down, and snatches Evan’s letter from the printer. Soon after Connor is found dead with Evan’s letter in his pocket. This leads to the misperception that Connor had written the letter to Evan before his suicide and that the two boys had been close friends.
To make a long story short – the run time is 2 ½ hours – Evan basks in the attention from the Murphy family who are thrilled to think that Connor actually did have a friend. Evan blossoms as two fellow nerds and he put up a website called The Connor Project, and a speech by Evan goes viral on Facebook. It is a cure for his social anxiety, based on a false premise. There never was a friendship. The fiction is born that they met and passed emails back and forth. The perfidy grows until, as it must, the bubble bursts.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is still playing on Broadway. It is touring the country to enthusiastic audiences. Little wonder. In its own way it is a universal story of the angst that is unavoidable in growing up and the frustration and missteps of parents trying to ease that angst. It is the rare parent who does not grow short with the distant, stubborn soul now occupying his child’s room. It is the rare teen who has not feared rejection by his peers and the world. The audience was filled with many young people, perhaps brought by parents hoping to open a dialogue. Personally I could identify with Evan’s mother (Jessica Phillips) and her feelings of helplessness, frustration, and desperation as she tried to ease his pain and to reach him.
There is no question but that the story hits a truthful chord. The language is the language of current adolescents and the story genuinely pulls at the heartstrings. That the music is not particularly memorable seems less important; it is serviceable and the musicians are good. The original Broadway production was at the Music Box Theatre, a much smaller venue than the Ahmanson and other tour destinations. The production suffers from the magnification. The cavernous spaces like the Ahmanson swallow up some of the dialogue and impinge on the sense of intimacy. But it would not be smart to miss it, because of these issues.
There is an honesty in “Dear Evan Hansen” that is refreshing. The actors look like real people. Teenage enthusiasm even when based on a crazy idea is magnetic and palpable. “Evan Hansen” may not be remembered for the music, but most will remember it for the message. Adolescence is tough, but rays of hope can be found in the worse situations. That is what it means to grow up.