Few musicals could deliver as powerful a message as “Dear Evan Hansen” did for me opening night at the Des Moines Civic Center. I was among the sold-out crowd to watch this Tony Award-winning musical tell its story on the Iowa stage.
I had no idea when I sat down what a lesson was in store for me. It addresses an issue that is so prevalent today. How do we connect with each other when we have both a physical and virtual presence to maintain? This tragic and endearing story portrays just how difficult it is for teens and their parents to navigate this social media age.
Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross) is a senior in high school trying to deal with loads of anxiety and depression issues. He can’t talk to others without panicking, and it’s an issue his mother and therapist are working with him to resolve. Raised by a single-mother, Evan has lots of time to himself and nothing makes that feeling worse than having no friends.
It’s amazing how lonesome “social media” can make someone feel. He fears doing something that will make him look strange, therefore he isolates himself. Most of his communications are done via computer or text messaging. He even fears ordering food to be delivered to his house because he would then have to talk to the delivery person.
One exercise to help him with his anxiety is to write letters to himself every day. That is where the title of the show, “Dear Evan Hansen” is derived. He is supposed to write “Dear Evan Hansen: Today is going to be a good day and here’s why.”
He begins his first letter at the beginning of the show, just before his first day of school. By the end of the day, his attitude has dipped, and he writes a letter that is about not having a good day, expressing thoughts about how no one would even notice if he disappeared.
When this letter is taken by his classmate Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), it sets in motion events that will change Evan’s life forever.
A few days after Evan’s encounter with Connor, he learns Connor took his own life, with Evan’s letter still in his possession. Connor’s parents mistakenly believe it is his suicide note addressed to Evan. After a few attempts to explain, Evan simply gives in and lets the Murphy’s believe Connor wrote the letter and fabricates a friendship with their dead son. While based entirely on a lie, the connection the Murphy’s create with Evan helps them both heal their wounds. It’s a terrible realization that it took such a tragedy like suicide to bring these humans together, even if it is under false pretenses.
Ross gives a stellar performance as Evan Hansen. He sets the tone for the production and physically portrays all the struggles this young man experiences. Ross gives the audience one of the best singing performances I’ve ever heard in a musical production. His voice soars over the audience like a beacon that makes it impossible to look anywhere but at him.
My favorite performance came from Jessica Phillips who plays Evan’s mother, Heidi. She is doing her best to provide and care for her son but has no way of knowing just how much he keeps from her. Phillips plays the part perfectly. She has an excellent mother-son chemistry with Ross. You can feel the anguish she feels as Evan pulls away from Heidi.
I can see why this is an award winning musical. The storytelling is fantastic. Typically I sit back in my seat to watch a stage production. On many occasions, I found myself leaning forward, drawn in by the story in front of me. I loved it, there’s no other way to put it.
“Dear Evan Hansen” plays at the Civic Center through Sunday.
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