Adolescent growing pains are nothing new, but the Internet has magnified them. Thanks to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, their vulnerabilities have gone viral through rumor, gossip, and the full spectrum of fake news. Sadly, suicide is an all too frequent response by teenagers in an age of such cruelties.
The acclaimed “Dear Evan Hansen” (2017 Tony for best musical) – inspired by the death of a fellow student of Jewish musical collaborator-then student Benj Pasek examines the anxieties of high schooler Connor Murphy and the impact of his death on his and Evan’s families. Now the show, directed with compelling intensity by Michael Greif – has turned the Citizens Bank Opera House into a singular search engine for insight and understanding.
Broadway in Boston presents the show through Aug. 4.
A vivid, emotional exploration plays out against a radiant backdrop that resembles an ever-evolving computer screen, complete with panels of cyber conversation. At the same time, the less-grounded 17-year-old Evan feels largely alone in a world dwarfed by often-unsubstantiated emails and tweets.
Since the back story departure of his father, working mother Heidi has struggled to deal with Evan’s anxieties, and encouraged him to write the “Dear Evan Hansen” letters that his therapist believes will help him cope with his anxieties.
After Connor commits suicide shortly after finding and reading a copy of one of Evan’s letters, his parents, Larry and Cynthia, infer from the correspondence that the two were good friends. Evan’s wise-cracking buddy Jared initially advises him that some people may suspect that they were secret lovers. Evan actually wants a relationship with Murphy’s daughter Zoe, and grabs hold of her parents’ assumption as though it were an emotional life raft.
Ultimately, Evan must choose between a spiraling number of Internet followers and making real connections. Will he embrace a life of truth despite the likely cost to his relationship with Zoe and the strong feeling her parents have developed for him? The hero’s choice notwithstanding, “Dear Evan Hansen” transcends facile online communications with a deep look at the eternal challenges of growing up and a cautionary message about the slippery slope of adolescent popularity.
A strong cast fully expresses this rich correspondence. Ben Levi Ross sharply captures Evan’s outsider feelings in the moving early “Waving Through a Window” and his contrasting optimism on the beautiful anthem-like first act closer, “You Will Be Found.” Maggie McKenna is a revelation as Zoe, with a fitting naturalness and sweet voice.
Ross and McKenna display good chemistry as well as vibrant singing on the love duet “Only Us.” Jessica Phillips finds Heidi’s world-weariness and brings great heart to her poignant solo, “So Big/So Small.” Jared Goldsmith has Jared Kleinman’s salty-tongued chutzpah and hard-hitting attitude. Phoebe Koyabe catches Alana Beck’s self-serving identification as a “close acquaintance” of Connor’s and her solid moments of moral compass.
Letter-writing may be an endangered species in the digital age. Even so, there will always be a place for the perennial insights of “Dear Evan Hansen.”
For tickets, visit www.broadwayinboston.com or call 800-982-2787.