Dear Evan Hansen entered a world pre-too many things to mention, at a moment of unimaginable innocence compared to the here and now. The musical, with a book by Steven Levenson, and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, had its world premiere at D.C.’s Arena Stage in 2015 and enjoyed a moment practically to itself at the forefront of a nuanced conversation about teens and depression, guns, suicide, and the pervasive influence of social media.
The lore is long surrounding Michael Greif’s original production — perhaps most fervently among those who missed it — and the early revelation of seeing Ben Platt perform the title role. That was before Pasek and Paul had cemented their golden rep as the Oscar-winning lyricists of La La Land‘s “City of Stars,” and composers of original songs like “This Is Me” for Hugh Jackman’s blockbuster hit The Greatest Showman. That was before director Greif took Evan Hansen to Broadway and the show earned six Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Actor for Platt.
Eras and movements have come and gone since the show helped frame new ways of considering a host of hot-button issues — chiefly teenage mental health — and before shocking real-world events, from Parkland to presidential politics, kept reshaping the conversation at a grueling and violent pace.
Dear Evan Hansen (★★★½) now comes back around in the touring production of Greif’s Broadway staging, booked for a four-week, sold-out run at the Kennedy Center, but no longer upholding the mantle of this season’s edgiest pop culture phenom about disaffected teens. In fact, a few years of audience-pleasing commercial success might have smoothed some of the show’s formerly sharp edges. As, say, NBC’s Hairspray Live! is to John Waters’ film Hairspray, so does this touring iteration of Evan Hansen appear to be a well-executed version of a version of something that likely felt more authentic in an earlier form.
Levenson’s book holds up as a fascinating story of a bad lie told with good intentions, and then spun by social media and hashtag activism into a paradigm-shifting crusade. Pasek and Paul’s plunking piano-pop score, however, might beg the question, “Dear Evan Hansen, why do so many of your songs sound the same?” Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone singing the title part any better than this production’s Ben Levi Ross.
Ross, who understudied the role on Broadway, fully commands here as the leading man whose performance defines the mood and dynamics of this alternately comic, or profoundly tragic, tale. From his soaring “Waving Through a Window,” to his powerful “Words Fail,” and every poignant note in between, he carries Evan’s heavy singing load with a clean delivery that doesn’t sacrifice emotion for melodiousness. His Evan, desperate to connect with the family of loner classmate Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), and particularly with Connor’s sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna), skirts an intriguing line between genuine and calculating, and his singing is truly spectacular.
He and McKenna duet warmly on “Only Us,” one of the show’s stronger examples of piano-pop uplift. McKenna’s Zoe stands out, in song or in tears, for looking, acting, and sounding like an actual teenager who’s navigating a terribly confusing time in her life. Jared Goldsmith, as Evan’s cynical friend Jared Kleinman — “We’re family friends. That’s a whole different thing, and you know it.” — likewise captures the sense and voice of a whip-smart teen with a lot to say, who reveals even more by what his words fail to say.
By contrast, the parents in the play — Evan’s stressed-out single mom Heidi (Jessica Phillips), and Connor and Zoe’s combative parents Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar) — register as mere theatrical vessels for involving grownups in this important conversation.
Phillips and Noll are convincing in their motherly roles, but the show really pulses to life with the interaction between the kids, Evan and Jared and Connor and Zoe, and Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe), the quiet classmate who seizes upon Evan Hansen’s big little lies in order to grab some ill-gotten glory for herself. There’s something so disappointingly dishonorable, yet credible, about Alana’s conduct in spinning fake news into a full-scale scam. Time will tell, but she might wind up someday being the show’s signature character.
Dear Evan Hansen runs through September 8, at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $79 to $175. The show is sold-out, but last-minute tickets may become available for some performances. Check for availability. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.