How far would you go to feel accepted? The titular character in "Dear Evan Hansen" goes farther than most people could fathom, almost irreproachably so, yet still manages to bring a family together and an audience to tears. Evan's story is astoundingly complex, leaving the audience with a lot to think about, something that most do not expect after leaving a popular musical filled with memorable songs. Under Michael Greif's artful direction, the audience is able to see the emotional and psychological life underneath many surprising actions.
"Dear Evan Hansen" manages to fit in a lot of big themes into one show. Evan is able to post-humously martyr a school bully and become an icon for teen suicide awareness. Connor, the bully who we only meet for a few minutes, is used as a pawn for dealing with everyone's personal problems. In an increasingly confusing digital landscape, it goes to show how hard it is to hold things on the internet accountable and how easily content can go viral. The musical also touches upon the idea of using social media to capitalize on other people's grief. Alana (Phoebe Koyabe) is especially guilty of this. She is someone who works on the project to remember Connor and is determined to not let people forget about him, despite the fact that she barely knew him herself. Both her and Evan's intentions could be perceived as either selfish, misguided, or genuine. And the show does not define which exactly it is.
But it is nice to see that this lie Evan maintains throughout the show actually does some good. "Everyone needed it for something," said Zoe at the end of the play. Evan manages to bring together a grieving and struggling family and bring hope to other people. Despite this, it felt like Evan's actions were somehow acceptable because he came clean and then came to terms with himself. It seemed like his personal problems allowed him an excuse for what he did, but Ross plays the guilt so heavily that we are able to see that Evan understands the errs of his ways. By the end of the show, Evan finds the power within himself to do better and to be better, something everyone can and should strive toward.
Evan (Ben Ross) is endearingly awkward and incredibly realistic as an awkward and anxious teen. His interactions with Zoe (Maggie McKenna) are especially sweet in a way most former and current adolescents can relate to. Jared (Jared Goldsmith) is the much-needed voice of reason. His commentary on the situations Evan finds himself in provides a nice brevity to the emotional heaviness of the show. He likes to pretend he is someone he isn't, just like Evan. He acts like he is cooler than Evan, and thinks of himself as a bystander, watching from a removed distance. But his complicity and involvement in the situation makes him just as guilty as Evan, reminding us that being a bystander also results in a sense of responsibility.
Peter Nigrini's projection design is one of the most impressive parts of the production. The audience is greeted by the seemingly live feed on the columns during the preshow that later explodes into a beautiful impressionist landscape of the world Evan lives in; both grounded in the intersection of reality and the digital landscape that undoubtedly affects his world. Paired with Japhy Weideman's sharp lighting, the technical elements of the show illuminate a world of sensory overload and depth.
"Dear Evan Hansen" is a fascinating portrait of adolescence and mental health in the digital age. It truly reminds the audience that even if you feel alone, even if you make big mistakes along the way, you will be found.
"Dear Evan Hansen" runs now through November 25th at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets start at $99, though prices are subject to change, and can be purchased here.