In 2018, it's baffling to see works of art reluctant to acknowledge the existence of the internet. Dear Evan Hansen, which opened last night at the Curran Theater, hinges almost entirely on it. Facebook, Kickstarter, virality and email are all key to its story, told on a stage flanked by large screens displaying a constant scroll of tweets, comments and texts.
But at its heart, Dear Evan Hansen is really about the timeless stuff: teenage isolation, self-acceptance, death, and the human necessity for validation. How do you make those issues, so well-worn on Broadway, come alive anew? Adding a digital aspect to them could have been a disaster in the wrong hands, but Steven Levenson (book) and Benj Pasek & Justin Paul (music and lyrics) have done so thoughtfully and movingly, with six Tonys and a massive buzz to show for it.
I'll add to the buzz: this is an astounding show.
The story centers on Evan Hansen, a teenage outcast who has only a few interactions with his high school classmate, Connor Murphy, before Connor commits suicide. Craving attention, and seeing the needs of Connor's family for understanding, Evan half-jumps (and is half-pushed) into an elaborate lie that he and Connor were secretly best friends. While his tangled web brings comfort to Connor's family, purpose to fellow students, and a romance with Connor's sister, Zoe, it begins to inevitably spiral out of control, aided by social media.
As the lead in the touring production at the Curran, Ben Levi Ross is a dizzying bundle of twitching and retreating; the constant physicality of his character's anxiety turns into transcendence when he sings. There is not one weak link in the eight-person cast, while the songs, textbook at times (you might know Pasek & Paul from The Greatest Showman), achieve enough spine-chilling climaxes to balance out their syrupiness.