“Dear Evan Hansen”
2 stars (out of 4)
At its best, “Dear Evan Hansen” offers an aching portrayal of life’s slippery fulcrum points, from teenagers’ capacity for deception and mindless cruelty to the jaw-clenching realms of parental doubt, guilt and resolve.
The winner of a half-dozen Tony Awards, including 2017’s Best Musical, this Broadway sensation debuted its national touring cast at the Buell Theatre on Sept. 26 and runs through Oct. 13 before visiting the rest of the country for a no doubt years-long odyssey, given its critical renown.
That cast, led by the lean, nervy Ben Levi Ross (as Evan Hansen) and winsome Maggie McKenna (Zoe), ground this viral tale in credible tones of adolescent self-preservation and posturing. Eight people act as cast and chorus, populating an unfriendly world that’s more referenced than portrayed.
As high schoolers viewing themselves through the warped windows of social media, they are daunted by the same task as generations before: forging an identity amid layered, constantly shifting messages. A chunk of ground gives way when Zoe’s older brother Connor (Marrick Smith) commits suicide shortly after the start of senior year — a cataclysm whose emotional causes are only nebulously dealt with in a story more concerned with how people take advantage of said tragedy.
The bare stage is augmented with hanging, scrolling projection screens that cleverly communicate the interior and exterior muddle of an always-connected social sphere. It’s both sleek and mildly confusing, as it’s meant to be, a cold, Kraftwerk-like aesthetic leavened by the intimate domestic scenes that slide on and off stage — dinner tables, bedrooms and living rooms — offering an ever-present contrast to the public fears of its characters.
Appropriately, these characters spend much of their time addressing the audience instead of each other, walking purposefully to corners of the stage to pivot to military-like poses and deliver lines. The impact lessens as it turns into a something of a crutch, particularly in the absence of anything resembling choreography. But the poignance and symbolism are there.
Hansen, a role owned by Broadway’s Ben Platt (who won a Tony for it), writes a letter to himself at his therapist’s urging. Conor, a bully, latches onto a line about his sister (for whom Evan pines) and assaults Evan shortly before taking his own life for not-entirely-clear reasons. When the note is found on his body, Conor’s parents misinterpret it a sign of Conor and Evans’s secret friendship.
Their willingness to believe Evan’s crass yet uncertain exploitation of the misunderstanding (for the purposes of getting closer to Zoe) set the plot in motion, its plastic gears grinding on Facebook and YouTube fame, ghostwriters and pseudo-hackers (embodied in the wisecracking Jared Goldsmith, as the reluctant, potty-mouthed sidekick), and the untamed anxiety of its protagonist.
Songs are packed with stop-start fits of dialogue, which halt their momentum amid treacly pop melodies that recall Vanessa Carlton more than contemporary Broadway. The compact on-stage band, hidden and vaulted, is occasionally too loud for the vocals, despite Ross’ commanding voice. But it rarely matters when the music — minus affecting Second Act numbers like “Only Us” and “Good for You” — rarely escapes its trite, overly familiar construction.
That’s the fault of songwriters and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose work on the Oscar-winning “La La Land” was similarly overrated to a baffling degree. But it’s not helped by Steven Levenson’s book, which shovels these talented players jokes and cliches hardly worthy of the best sitcom repartee, let alone a breathlessly acclaimed stage musical. At times, the story reduces its lofty themes of escape, connection and perseverance to panicked self-interest, and the activism of high schoolers to desperate immaturity.
The storm around Hansen includes his put-on single mother, played by Jessica Phillips. Phillips’ obvious singing talent is mismatched with a too-broad, talk-with-your-hands acting style that seems more mimed than felt. If it’s possible to clone Christiane Noll, who plays Conor’s mother with the flair and precision of Swoozie Kurtz, that role could be hers, too.
There’s supposed to be a sense in the end that something has been learned or dealt with after Evan’s lies are exposed, that we got what we needed and everything is just fine. It feels at once rushed and pat, but it’s analog to this crisply performed but mediocre show that has captured hearts by invoking — but never meaningfully dealing with — a host of issues. It’s just fine.
If you go
“Dear Evan Hansen.” Broadway debuting its national tour in Denver, with various performances through Oct. 13 at the Buell Theatre, 1350 Curtis St. Tickets: $40-$145 via 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org