There are few shows that represent 21st-century culture quite like “Dear Evan Hansen.” The musical phenomenon, which hit Broadway in 2016 and took home six Tony Awards (including Best Musical), puts a prominent focus on how technology-driven and social media-obsessed our society has become. The show, which graced the Fox Theater stage in Atlanta from April 23-28 as part of its national tour, is a terrific piece of theater, combining phenomenal acting and breathtaking musical numbers with a meaningful message of family, friendship and self-acceptance.
The musical introduces us to Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross), a socially awkward high schooler whose single mother Heidi (Jessica Phillips) encourages him to write letters to himself to overcome his isolation. The eccentric Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) steals one of Evan’s letters, only to later be found dead with it, having committed suicide. After finding the letter, addressed “Dear Evan Hansen,” Connor’s parents, Larry (Aaron Lazar) and Cynthia (Christiane Noll) assume that Evan and Connor were secret friends, and Evan plays out the lie with the help of his classmate Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith). Soon, Evan finds himself entangled in a web of lies and must find his way out before things go too far.
Ross is a revelation in the titular role, managing to delicately balance Evan’s awkwardness with marvelous comedic timing and insane vocals. His performances of “For Forever” and “You Will Be Found” are perfect showcases of both his impressive voice and ability to integrate personality into his numbers. Even while Ross hits incredible notes, viewers can still sense that Evan is a struggling teenager, not a talented actor. Ross exhibits Evan’s growth as the plot progresses, and he’s an absolute joy to watch on stage.
The musical features a slim eight cast members, with almost every character receiving their own song and arc. There’s no sweeping ensemble, which makes every scene more personal and allows the audience to truly get to know each character. In another musical, a character like Jared, Evan’s friend, might be reserved to the comic relief-providing sidekick. However, “Dear Evan Hansen” manages to give everyone a background and motivation, often in very subtle and clever ways. This character development is a credit to playwright Steven Levenson’s witty dialogue, as well as to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songwriting.
The show’s set is intriguing, utilizing giant shifting screens that feature pictures, videos, emails and constantly changing social media feeds. These visuals cleverly express the prominence of technology in the story without forcing the characters to explicitly address it, and the set sometimes tells part of the story by itself. Not to mention, the set looks super cool and gives the show a hip, modern vibe.
Ultimately, a musical is only as strong as its music. The songs of “Dear Evan Hansen” are heartfelt and well-written, but also serve as the musical’s only weakness (albeit a small one). I cannot shower enough praises on “Sincerely, Me,” which shows Jared and Evan hilariously forging fake letters that Evan and Connor “exchanged.” In addition, “Waving Through a Window” and “For Forever” are remarkable deep dives into Evan’s psyche. Still, the show lacks variety in its musical numbers, with an overwhelming majority of ballads and few other genres. While the ballads do a stellar job of developing characters and pulling at heartstrings, they would work better if juxtaposed with some quicker, punchier lyrics.
The musical tackles themes of suicide, bullying and isolation, but never feels unrealistic or preachy. Every character interaction and plot turn feels organic, if somewhat predictable. The musical leaves the audience with the important and heartwarming messages of being yourself and supporting your family. By the time the curtain closes and you wipe away your tears, you care about these characters and their relationships so much that it’s hard not to buy into these messages. It’s rare that a show can sell themes like these while still injecting so much humor and personality, but “Dear Evan Hansen” pulls it off beautifully. It’s a rare breed of musical that must be seen to be believed.