Sunday, December 9, 2018

Adolescent angst propels thought-provoking 'Dear Evan Hansen'

Ben Levi Ross stars in 'Dear Evan Hansen.' Curran theater photo

Misunderstanding leads to a web of lies with mixed results in the touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” presented by the Curran theater in San Francisco.

Winner of six Tony Awards in 2017, including Best Musical, the misunderstanding starts with a letter that high school senior Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross) writes to himself. He was advised to do so by the therapist he’s been seeing because he’s socially awkward and has virtually no friends.

A bullying classmate, Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), finds it and refuses to return it. Another classmate describes Connor as looking like a school shooter.

A few days later, Connor kills himself. Evan’s letter in his pocket is seen as a sign of friendship between them.

Connor’s parents, Larry (Aaron Lazar) and Cynthia (Christiane Noll), ask him to join them at dinner with their daughter, Zoe (Maggie McKenna), the junior on whom the shy Evan has a crush.

His web of lies makes the Murphy family feel good about Connor, believing he wasn’t the total loner they had thought him to be.

Next thing you know, Evan has to deliver a eulogy for Connor that goes viral. 

Classmate Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe) buys into the story and wants to set up a memorial fund to restore an abandoned apple orchard that Connor supposedly loved.

Also involved with the fund is what may be Evan’s only friend, the skeptical, wise-cracking Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith). Jared makes up emails that Evan and Connor supposedly exchanged. They, too, go viral.

Except for Evan, everybody’s happy, including his harried single mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), who works or goes to school most nights.

Eventually the truth comes out, leading to important bonding.

Much of the story unfolds in the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and the book by Steven Levenson.

Directed by Michael Greif, the acting is excellent, especially by Ross as Evan. He stutters, he stammers, he folds within himself with anxiety. It’s all he can do to greet others, let along hold a conversation.

All of the songs are sung well, but many of Evan’s solos are belted out, leading to a sameness. Moreover, the sound design by Nevin Steinberg is so loud that many lyrics are distorted. Music director Austin Cook leads the seven-member orchestra from the keyboard. Choreography is by Danny Mefford.

The set by David Korins is relatively simple and fluid, augmented by the social media images in Peter Nigrini’s projections. Character-specific costumes are by Emily Rebholz with lighting by Japhy Weideman.

The opening night audience was dominated by young people who were taking selfies in the lobby and aisles when they weren’t absorbed in their devices. However, when the show started, they responded enthusiastically.

Although the use of social media and the focus on a teenage as the main character hold special appeal to the younger generation, people of all ages can relate to the human dilemmas experienced by all the characters, especially the parents. It’s a thought-provoking, thoroughly entertaining show.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “Dear Evan Hansen” will continue at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco, through Dec. 30.

For tickets and information, call (415) 358-1220 or visit