The Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen” is at the Kennedy Center through Sept. 8, and its emotional story about a lonely teenager who gets caught up in a viral lie will deeply resonate with those who have ever felt they did not fit in.
Based on the book by Tony Award-winner Steven Levenson, with music and lyrics by Grammy, Tony and Academy-Award winning writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the show touches on mental health and suicide but goes far beyond those topics. Included are issues around family dynamics, peer pressure, the impact of social media and the universal journey of finding one’s voice in an increasingly disconnected world.
On a 50-city national tour, the show stars Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen, an awkward teen who feels like an outsider and who is desperate to be liked. Raised by a single mom (Jessica Phillips) who is struggling to make ends meet, Evan is so painfully shy that just trying to make small talk with others is a major effort.
Insecure and desperate for attention, Evan writes daily pep talks to himself that his therapist has advised him to write. That routine goes awry one day when another loner, Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) get his hands on a letter that Evan has printed out in the school’s computer room. Imbued with a mean streak, Connor steals the letter, then mockingly scrawls his name across the cast that is on Evan’s broken arm. When Connor later kills himself, and Evan’s letter is found in Connor’s pocket, Connor’s parents assume the letter was written by Connor to his friend, Evan.
Aaron Lazar plays Larry Murphy, Connor’s father, and Christiane Noll plays Cynthia Murphy, Connor’s mother, who is desperate for any clues that can explain why Connor became so unhappy that he would commit suicide. Although Evan tries to explain that he wrote the letter, he could not bear to tell them the truth when he sees that they want to desperately believe that the deeply troubled Connor had a friend. Another reason that he decides to remain quiet is that he has a crush on Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna) and spending time with the Murphys allows Evan to get nearer to the girl.
When news of Evan’s supposed friendship with Connor spreads through the school, Evan finds himself in the spotlight, something he desperately longed for. The deception, however, will take a toll. When Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), a fellow student who, too, have experienced feeling like an outsider, decides to start a fund in Connor’s name, Evan becomes co-president of the Connor Project and gives a talk about Connor at a school assembly. Evan’s talk goes viral on social media, and the teen becomes even more entangled in the lie that he has created.
The strength of the production is in the strong acting by the cast who give meat to the complex relationships that develop, pulling the audience into Evan’s web of deception as he struggles with both helping Connor’s family and with his guilt over allowing his lie to spiral out of control.
Ross is superb as he goes from a painfully awkward basket case to a confident, social media sensation whose newfound popularity distances him from his mother, Heidi, who has always been there for him.
McKenna does a lovely job as Evan’s love interest and Jared Goldsmith is appropriately snarky as the teen who urges Evan to continue the lie, aiding him by backdating a series of fake emails supposedly between Evan and Connor.
The show’s songs, particularly the uplifting “You Will Be Found,” also add to the emotional impact and richness of the plot, with “Waving Through a Window” and “If I Could Tell Her,” songs that will stay in your head long after you leave the theater.
A dynamic creative team deserves kudos for their contribution, and set designer David Korins’s screens are particularly creative as they capture the social media scene and all its overwhelming hype.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is heartbreaking, inspiring and timely. For tickets, visit kennedycenter.org.