November 14, 2018 at 1:25 pm PST | by John Paul King
Musical theater meets the internet in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

The cast of ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ starring Ben Levi Ross (center). (Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Center Theatre Group)

For decades after the successes of “Les Misérables” and “Phantom of the Opera” in the 1980s, the Broadway stage was dominated by musicals cut from the same tried-and-true cloth; between new shows based on already-familiar sources, “trunk” musicals built around previously-existing song catalogues, and good old-fashioned revivals of past hits, it was an era of “safe” choices.

Though this period may have generated its share of enduring classics, many devotees of the art form likely heaved a collective sigh of relief when “Hamilton” – which turned traditional conventions of the genre upside down and still became a box office juggernaut – emerged to herald the dawn of a new era in which a fresh and daring vision could find expression on the stage and people would be willing to pay premium ticket prices to see it.

Prior to that, “Dear Evan Hansen” might have seemed unlikely to be a hit. With a mostly post-millennial cast of characters and a story firmly rooted within the contemporary world of social media, its appeal to the typical Broadway audience – which traditionally skews to an older demographic – would have been considered limited, at best.

Instead, the new piece – with its buoyantly poppish yet emotionally complex score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and its sincere yet ironic libretto by Steven Levenson – was embraced. New York’s theatergoers, energized by the “youth-quake” of “Hamilton” and hungry for more, turned it into the season’s breakout smash; it earned six Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Thanks to the first touring production, now approaching the end of its run at the Ahmanson Theatre, Angelenos have had the opportunity to embrace it for themselves; judging from the difficulty of getting tickets (and the price tag of those tickets, once secured), they have embraced it just as fully.

It’s not hard to see why. This is an eminently likable coming-of-age piece, centered on a character so broken he demands our empathy and exploring the struggle of reconciling private self with public perception in a way that resonates with anyone who has an account on Facebook or Instagram. Its storyline revolves around the title character, a high-schooler with deep-rooted social anxiety whose hard-working single mother barely has time to nurture him; on assignment from his therapist, he writes a letter of encouragement to himself, but it inadvertently ends up in the hands of Connor – another troubled teen at his school who later takes his own life. When the letter is found by Connor’s parents, they contact Evan, mistakenly believing it was written to him by their son; Evan, wanting to provide comfort to the grieving family, tells them that he and Connor were secretly friends – a fabrication which quickly spins out of control and places Evan in the center of a social media phenomenon that forces him to live a lie even as it brings him a sense of connectedness that has always seemed out of his grasp.

Even in this brief synopsis, it’s obvious that “Evan Hansen” is a show that pulls in opposing directions. It’s both comic and tragic, which makes it neither; it deals with somber subject matter, yet it’s an uplifting parable about finding light in the darkness. That it proffers the idea of finding that light within an audacious pretense adds yet another layer to its double-edged ethos, and that it further suggests such pretense can benefit a greater good leaves us in contemplation long after we have walked out of the theater humming its tunes.

Of course, there are times when the plot strains credibility; it’s a little too easy for everyone to accept Evan’s lie, even considering the willingness of people to believe in things that they want to be true, and quickness with which this awkward and socially inept outsider finds his footing within the community drawn into his false narrative feels like a bit of a disservice to those who suffer from mental health challenges in real life.  As is often the case with musicals, the show’s powerhouse first half gives way to a second act that loses steam as it dutifully ties up the threads of its story – though Michael Greif’s succinct direction does keep it from dragging.

Even so, there is so much to appreciate that such observations amount to little more than minor quibbles. What the show says about human interaction – and the lack of it when we need it most – rings true despite the occasional simplification; and while there have been shows that tackled psychological disorder with greater depth and insight (Kitt and Yorkey’s “Next to Normal” comes to mind), there has never been another that has addressed the impact of cyberspace on the human psyche – both individual and communal – with as much savvy and observational shrewdness as this one.

Supporting this all-important facet of the story is David Korin’s remarkable set, a multi-media fortress of screens and scrolling text that reflects the omnipresence of these things in our modern life; in its midst, modular platforms representing the bedrooms and dining rooms of the characters – the inner sanctums of their private lives – drift in and out to set the various scenes, still under the ever-watchful thousand eyes of the technological towers that surround them.

There’s a lot more to admire. The engaging performers, led by the gifted young Ben Levi Ross as Evan; Pasek and Paul’s effective and affecting songs (it’s impossible not to leave the theater with the strains of “For Forever” drifting through your head); Levenson’s intelligent book, which makes you laugh even as it breaks your heart – all these are best appreciated first-hand, without over-exposure here. Theater, after all, is an immediate experience, providing us the opportunity to discover its joy on our own – and “Dear Evan Hansen,” if you can manage to get a ticket, has plenty of joy to discover.

“Dear Evan Hansen” runs through Nov. 25 at the Ahmanson Theatre (135 North Grand Ave.) in DTLA.  For more information and tickets, visit centertheatregroup.org.

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