Review: A Resonant “Dear Evan Hansen” Arrives in Los Angeles

Ben Levi Ross as "Evan Hansen" and the Company of the First North American Tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

An awkward, ignored kid suddenly becomes popular, and finds himself in a position to make a difference — but only by way of a tragedy and churning out ‘white lies.’ On this unique twist of a premise, Dear Evan Hansen hits so many relevant notes for our times, that it’s no wonder that the 2017 Tony-award winning musical has resonated so powerfully not only with the youth, but also parents.

L-R: Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen,’ Aaron Lazar as ‘Larry Murphy,’ Christiane Noll as ‘Cynthia Murphy’ and Maggie McKenna as ‘Zoe Murphy’ in the First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

At the CTGLA production, Ben Levi Ross plays the  geeky, vulnerable title character. He comes from a broken home, has zero self-confidence, and wears his broken arm in a cast like a metaphor for his broken inner-self. Crippled by social anxiety, he’s unable to communicate or even accept a compliment before breaking out into nervous ticks and apologies. Apparently, neither the medication nor the therapy is doing much good.

Part of his therapy requires him to write a new-agey letter to himself — a letter which inadvertently ends up in the hands of another troubled student, Connor (played by a tortured Marrick Smith) who then ends up committing suicide. When the grief-stricken parents (Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll) find this letter, they naturally assume it was written by their deceased son, that he and Evan shared a deep (borderline homoerotic) friendship. Needy and desperate, they approach Evan, who fabricates a history involving fake emails and shared encounters to comfort them. There are other bonuses, too — he becomes popular at school, the voice of disenfranchisement; he practically gets adopted by the Connors who even offer to pay for his college tuition, and finds himself dating his long-time crush, Connor’s neglected, bullied sister, Zoe (Maggie McKenna). Is it so wrong to lie when it creates so much good?

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and Jessica Phillips as ‘Heidi Hansen’ in the First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The musical is a mirror to our struggles today — the struggles of raising a child in times of economic hardship, especially as a single parent; the struggles of adolescence in an age of social media onslaught, which instead of connecting, seems to alienate; and also, the over-dependence on pharmaceutical drugs to try and heal a broken psyche when what one longs for his human connection and a sense of purpose.

The Broadway-faithful direction is by Obie Award-winner, Michael Greif (Rent, Grey Gardens), the music and lyrics by Oscar, and Golden Globe-winning songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and the book by Obie Award-winner, Steven Levenson. With such a team behind it, it’s no wonder the show features plenty of memorable numbers like “So Big/So Small” by Evan’s overworked, stressed mother, Heidi (played by a heart-wrenching, Jessica Phillips), the ebullient, “Sincerely Me” and “You Will Be Found” — already a hashtag. In an overall terrific cast, Ross in his first national tour, is brilliant as Evan, and Jared Goldsmith as his co-conspirator and “family friend” Jared is hilarious.

— G. Dhalla

Dear Evan Hansen is playing at CTGLA Ahmanson Theatre through 11/25. Tickets HERE.