The Tony-award winning musical from the composer/lyricist team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, which is playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, continues the trend towards darker and more internal stories in contemporary musical theater. Pasek and Paul, who wrote the music for the film La-La Land and the Broadway musical A Christmas Story, are following in the footsteps of Next to Normal, which chronicled the story of a dysfunctional American family.
Dear Evan Hansen begins with a fairly thin and familiar premise – a teenager crippled with social anxiety who is the child of a single mother struggling to make ends meet while dealing the burdens of parenting a difficult child. Evan Hansen is lonely and isolated but manages to break out of his isolation after the suicide of a fellow classmate ensnarls Evan in a web of lies.
The play, which struggles to deal with multiple themes ranging from the role of social media to family dysfunction and income inequality, finally settles on the issues of truth and consequences. While Evan manages to escape his isolation through a series of lies, his quest for acceptance ultimately results in his downfall. A brief epilogue suggests Evan’s rehabilitation, but is little more than an afterthought.
Overall, the play fails to deliver on an intriguing premise. The characters tend toward caricature, and much of the plot strains credulity. The classmate’s suicide is largely unexplained and feels like a convenient plot device. The family dynamics are mostly predictable and lurch toward stereotypes. Most importantly, Evan’s character is not really explored – is his social anxiety a result of a normal shy kid’s fears, his family situation, or a deeper psychological issue? We are left with an empty space at the heart of the main character.
After a fairly lengthy and formulaic first act, the second act is an improvement as Evan’s lies return to haunt him. However, the shallowness of the characters and the dubious plot twists continue to drag down the production. Unfortunately, most of the music is solid but forgettable as Pasek and Paul stick to an expository style of lyrics which largely serves to explain the feelings of the characters rather than inhabiting their emotions.
One notable exception is a duet between Evan and the dead classmate’s father about softening up a new baseball mitt. This song solidifies a bond between a father who has lost a son and a son whose father abandoned him. It is an example of a very specific, small yet emotional moment that is missing from a show that is filled with otherwise predictable scenes.
The performances in the show are solid but hardly exceptional. Ben Levi Ross hits all the marks as Evan Hansen, but his performance has a tendency to become mannered, largely because of the underwritten role. Jessica Phillips as Evan’s single mom has a wonderful turn in the climax of the piece but is otherwise hampered by the limits of script. Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe are fine in their more comic roles, but Maggie McKenna, Christiane Noll, Aaron Lazar and Marrick Smith are limited by their mostly generic characterizations.
Clearly, Pasek and Paul, along with book writer Steven Levenson, were looking to stretch themselves with this material, but they miss the mark by shooting at too many targets and ignoring some of the most tantalizing themes that would lift the story to a higher level. By focusing primarily on the plight of a socially anxious teenager, they skip over many of the larger themes in the piece. While they touch on the role of social media, they miss an opportunity to examine in any depth the role of social isolation in family dysfunction, or the impact of the post-modern impulse for social acceptance and popularity.
The real problem here is the internal focus on the young boy in his bedroom, his small group of classmates and his family circle, with little sense of the wider social context. In addition, the formulaic approach to the story, the sparsely defined characters and the often predictable plot lines rob the show of the credibility that it requires to construct a larger, more universal theme.
Ironically, the set design David Korins and projection design by Peter Negrini go much farther in the direction of larger themes. Their media collage of social media posts and family photographs suggests a world outside that is pressing in on all the characters and does more to explain their dilemmas and ultimate suffering than the thinly drawn characters and story. Unfortunately, the extraordinarily talented duo of Pasek and Paul hewed too closely to the restrictions of the story and were not able to break away to a higher level in the musical score, of which they are eminently capable.
Hoyt Hilsman is a writer, journalist and Los Angeles Theater Critic for Riot Material magazine. Mr. Hilsman has been a regular theater and cultural critic for Daily Variety and HuffPost, and has written articles for national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and others. He is a member and former President of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and served as Chair of the PEN West Drama Awards. As a writer, his stage plays and musicals have been produced in theaters around the country and abroad, and he has written screenplays for a number of studios and television networks, including Disney, Sony, New Line, Fox, ABC, NBC and CBS. He has also written a series of political thrillers novels, including Nineteen Angels, which is currently in development as a feature film.