Ben Levi Ross plays the title role in “Dear Evan Hansen,” a musical that swept the 2017 Tony Awards, with nine nominations and six wins. It opens Tuesday, April 23, at the Fox Theatre. CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Theater review: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ describes teen pain in internet age

Every generation comes with its own set of anxieties and tribulations, all urgently cataloged by the pop-music writers of the time. “Dear Evan Hansen” is among the first Broadway musicals to delve deeply into the loneliness and despair of the digital age, and the toll it can exact on teenagers and their sometimes absent and fumbling parents.

“Dear Evan”—a tale of suicide, emotional chaos, young love, and the social media storm that happens when a letter falls into the wrong hands—arrived at the Fox Theatre this week for its first Atlanta run, shattering hearts, rattling nerves and disseminating its cautionary tale with an urgent ping.

Starring the magnificently gifted Ben Levi Ross as tortured soul Evan, and featuring the beautifully articulated songs of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the show that swept the 2017 Tonys, winning six, is one of the Atlanta theater season’s hottest tickets. For the most part, it does not disappoint.

To reveal too much of the plot is to risk spoiling everything. To share too little is to blur the material and confuse the reader. Proceed with caution.

Ben Levi Ross plays Evan Hansen and Jessica Phillips plays his mother, Heidi Hansen, in the touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen.” CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Early on we see that Evan is having trouble coping with the social mechanisms of life and high school. His therapist has advised him to write epistles to himself, accentuating the positive nature of each day’s events. When Evan jots off a sad note about his feelings of invisibility and his love for Zoe (Maggie McKenna), it falls into the hands of Zoe’s drug-addled and mean-spirited brother, the short-lived Connor (Marrick Smith).

Next thing you know, Zoe and Connor’s bereft parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll), have latched onto Evan for clues about Connor’s suicide, as it would appear from the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter that Evan and Connor were the best of friends, if not more.

While Evan could have relieved the Murphys of their desperate, misplaced fantasy, he plays along, and one mistruth leads to another.

Snarky classmate Jared (Jared Goldsmith) is recruited as Evan’s accomplice. Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), a self-absorbed classmate in search of a cause, suddenly finds one in the powerful tale of Evan and Connor. And a social media campaign to raise awareness about teenage suicide and rehabilitate an apple orchard where the friends supposedly hung out lights up the Internet.

Ben Levi Ross plays a high school senior thrust into the spotlight by a lie that takes over his life in “Dear Evan Hansen.” The musical opens Tuesday, April 23, at the Fox Theatre. CONTRIBUTED/MATTHEW MURPHY
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When Evan’s little lie goes big and viral, he’s suddenly on the receiving end of the kindness, love and adoration that has previously eluded him.

Suffice it to say, things do not end happily. Or do they?

In Evan, the Murphys find a surrogate son. In the Murphys, Evan, who was abandoned by his father when he was young and is somewhat unintentionally neglected by his sweet, hard-working mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), finds the support and nurturing he craves. And Alana, who helps mastermind the digital blitz unaware that it is based on a fiction, gets a reason for being.

My problem with Steven Levenson’s book (the details of which I have now overshared) is that it strains the limits of common sense. There are too many gaping holes in Evan’s story, red flags everywhere, but the characters apparently don’t want to see the truth.

On the upside, there is nail-biting suspense. There’s comedy in the form of awkward, aggressive, crafty teens. There’s a slow, smoldering flame in the strange, morbid courtship of Evan and Zoe. (McKenna, by the way, is astonishingly good as a young woman wise beyond her years. Her Zoe is smart, practical and arguably the most-cleared member of the group.)

And there is masterful design, in the form of video projections (by Peter Nigrini) that depict the social media frenzy driving the action. (Sets are by David Korins, costumes by Emily Rebholz, lighting by Japhy Weideman, sound by Nevin Steinberg.)

Steven Levenson, who wrote the book for the musical "Dear Evan Hansen," said the re-invention of one's own narrative is a typical teenage phenomenon, but adds that the advent of social media has put us all back in that adolescent quest to hang with the cool kids. "Technology has, in a way, made us all perpetually teenagers." CONTRIBUTED

But at its heart, “Dear Evan Hansen” is a profound and devastating exposé of the terror at work in the soul of dear Evan Hansen. A shattered scarecrow of a kid, he gets sucked into a private tragedy not of his making, only to find that he is so ill-equipped to handle the situation that he invents another kind of crisis and a very public one at that.

Ultimately, this difficult and provocative musical becomes a lesson in love, redemption and forgiveness, though the path to healing is fraught with pain. “Dear Evan Hansen” has the capacity to tear you to pieces, and somehow make you grateful for the bruising. It will take your breath away. No lie.

THEATER REVIEW

“Dear Evan Hansen”

8 p.m. April 26 and April 27. 2 p.m. April 27. 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. April 28. Through April 28. $59-$249. Very few tickets remain. Broadway in Atlanta, Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St., Atlanta; 855-285-8499; foxtheatre.org

Bottom line: Riveting

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