Who would have thought that a story about a depressed, socially awkward, anxious teenage boy could become a sellout Broadway musical?
Every now and then The Great White Way surprises, and Broadway in Atlanta has brought “Dear Evan Hansen,” directed by Michael Greif, to the Fox Theatre for a run through April 28.
This show opened on Broadway in December 2016 and proceeded to win six Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (Ben Platt). “Dear Evan” has developed something of a cult following, especially online, and continues to play to sold-out houses; this includes Atlanta, where tickets to the show are as scarce as hen’s teeth.
With a book by Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and an outstanding national company led by the talented Ben Levi Ross, the show also features a unique digital/computer scenic design (David Korins) that’s as hypnotic as computer screens can be.
Thankfully there are also people. 17-year-old Evan (Mr. Ross) has such social anxiety that his therapist suggests that he write letters to himself, reminding himself of what’s good about each day. His mother Heidi (Jessica Phillips) suggests that Evan make friends by asking people to sign the cast on his arm.
Sad to say, most don’t, except for the troubled Connor (Marrick Smith), whose sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna) and parents Larry (Aaron Lazar) and Cynthia (Christiane Noll) berate Connor for going to school high. Evan has an unspoken crush on Zoe, and when Connor finds out about it, he rages against Evan, thinking Evan was using him to get to his sister.
There are miscommunications, but the biggest is a seeming suicide note that Evan writes himself, but it falls into Connor’s hands—who actually does commit suicide. So the note makes it seem that Evan and Connor were friends (they weren’t), but Connor’s grieving parents take comfort in believing that their son had one good friend, and Evan, out of sympathy, cannot tell them the pitiless truth.
That’s all the plot that I can reveal. Turning to the music, it’s a joy to tell you that the songs, carefully conceived, crafted, and composed, work beautifully. Evan’s “For Forever,” with its heartfelt gentleness and soaring crescendos, has the power to make a stone tear up, and I did.
“You Will Be Found” has become a national anthem in some quarters. The program notes that fans of the show post about how “Dear Evan Hansen” has changed the way they see anxiety and depression in themselves and others. They draw portraits of the cast, make art with the lyrics and share photos.
Many of these fans were in the audience Wednesday night. You could feel waves of emotion and oceans of applause engulf the vast space of the Fox. These fans knew the lyrics and were willing to forgive that old bugaboo of the Fox: insufficient sound at times. I was not as generous.
I thought that in recent years, with the aid of better and better technology, we had just about licked that old sound problem in the 4600-seat theatre. But often, in softly spoken or rapid dialogue, the words were garbled or just lost. It’s wasn’t the fault of the actors. The sound technicians have simply got to do better. If you can’t understand the words, nothing else matters. When there was singing, things got better. I sincerely hope this problem is fixed immediately; there’s no excuse for it.
Evan Hansen personifies our urge to connect, which he finds almost impossible. Social media plays a vital role in the show; it seems nothing replaces live human contact. At any rate, the humor and humanity of “Dear Evan Hansen” touches audiences deeply. At the curtain call, you get the feeling that the entire audience would, if it could, give Evan a gigantic hug. If not Evan, someone.
For more information, visit foxtheatre.org.