Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Dear Evan Hansen follows the senior year of a teenager with acute social anxiety. When a misunderstanding regarding his supposed friendship with a classmate who killed himself propels Evan into connections he never thought possible, he adds to the situation with additional lies which he can't maintain long term.
The book by Steven Levenson takes theatergoers on a well-greased emotional rollercoaster (many at the performance I attended could be heard crying), which includes aptly placed humor and believable situations and characters. The show and its themes surrounding acceptance, the consequences of lies, suicide, and parent/child relationships are relatable and have certainly struck a chord with younger fans, who are especially ardent supporters of the show. If many of the topics have been addressed previously in theater, none may have done so quite so effectively.
Some theatergoers have expressed difficulty in cheering for a protagonist who sustains the untruths surrounding the misunderstanding. In examining this closely, it's clear that the character intended only to show kindness initially, but, like the imperfect humans we all are, got caught up in what felt like a good thing. It may not be the most ethical path to take, but it feels real, especially for a character without many well-honed social skills.
Dear Evan Hansen features a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are also responsible for the songs for the film The Greatest Showman, as well as the musicals Dogfight and A Christmas Story. Dear Evan Hansen's most effective and memorable songs are three numbers featuring Evan in act one, "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," and "You Will Be Found," which has become an anthem for encouraging youth who feel alone in this world. All three possess poetic lyrics put to soaring melodies. There are several comedic songs that propel the plot forward, along with some additional serious numbersnone better than "Requiem," in which Zoe, the sister of the deceased classmate, expresses the difficulty in feeling grief for her brother, who wasn't very nice to her (or others) while living. The song rings especially true to life and to the moment in the show.
Director Michael Grief wisely avoids over-staging the show, instead allowing the characters and situations to clearly play out without any distractions. The tone is maintained effectively and never falls into "after-school special" melodramatics, which would be an easy pitfall given the themes. The limited choreography by Danny Mefford is well-suited, and Austin Cook leads a great sounding nine-piece band which is perched on stage above the action and (mostly) hidden away by panels.
The musical is told with just a cast of eight, but the touring ensemble is an excellent one. Ben Levi Ross portrays Evan without the physical ticks that role originator Ben Platt showed, and comes across more as socially inept rather than displaying traits of a social anxiety disorder. Ben is endearing in the role and sings beautifully, mixing in an unstrained falsetto when necessary. Jessica Phillips brings many shades to the character as Evan's mom Heidi, well-meaning and loving but too busy working and going to school to realize the chaos that her son's well-intentioned actions have caused. As Zoe, Maggie McKenna shows off strong acting chops and vocals. Broadway veterans Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar portray the grieving parents and provide finely tuned performances. Touring audiences are lucky to have such acclaimed performers as part of a touring cast. Marrick Smith (Connor Murphy), Jared Goldsmith (Jared), and Phoebe Koyabe (Alana) round out the talented cast, and each shines in his or her individual moments within the show.
The set design by David Korins consists of several small, modular pieces, along with vertically and horizontally sliding panels where projections by Peter Nigrini are shown. The projections often display phone and computer screens of social media apps, which play an important part in the story. The costumes by Emily Rebholz are modern and appropriate, and Japhy Weidman's lighting is varied and combines with the set design and projections effectively.
Dear Evan Hansen is one of the better new musicals in recent years, and features a superb score and emotional tale. The touring cast is excellent, and tickets are hard to come by.
Dear Evan Hansen, through May 12, 2019, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-294-1816 or visiting dearevanhansen.com/tour/.