Get­ting to the heart of fam­ily heart­break

Teen’s lies over loss re­veal there’s no run­ning from mourn­ing

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - By Lily Ja­niak

“Dear Evan Hansen” isn’t only about chirpy so­cial me­dia alerts and vi­ral videos, the tri­umph of some neb­u­lous on­line “com­mu­nity” over real-life bonds with the peo­ple be­fore your eyes. It isn’t only about the con­tem­po­rary young men who can barely wince through a hello, who shut them­selves away out of de­pres­sion or anger, who mys­tify and worry peers and par­ents alike — when we think about them at all.

The beat­ing heart of Steven Leven­son, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s Tony-win­ning mu­si­cal is more time­less. The show, whose na­tional tour opened Thurs­day, Dec. 6, at the Cur­ran, is also about giv­ing and griev­ing.

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen (left) lies to the Mur­phy fam­ily, Larry (Aaron Lazar), Cyn­thia (Chris­tiane Noll) and Zoe (Mag­gie McKenna), in “Dear Evan Hansen.”

You see that most clearly in the breath­tak­ingly open ex­pres­sions of Michael Greif’s cast. Watch as anx­i­ety-rid­den Evan (Ben Levi Ross) tries to make it through the first school day of se­nior year. Each time some­one briefly ac­knowl­edges his pres­ence, his face con­torts into a plea, as if to say, “Please give me the gift of not hurt­ing or hat­ing me for just this mo­ment.”

Or take note as Evan in­sin­u­ates him­self into the Mur­phy fam­ily af­ter their son Con­nor (Mar­rick Smith) com­mits sui­cide. Con­nor’s mom, Cyn­thia (Chris­tiane Noll), looks at him with a re­cep­tiv­ity that’s both gen­er­ous and greedy. Wasted by shock, she feasts on his words with an

at­ten­tion he gets nowhere else in his life. Is it any won­der he lets a fib about how close he was with Con­nor snow­ball into an elab­o­rate, all-con­sum­ing lie?

Ev­ery­one in “Dear Evan Hansen” wants to spare ev­ery­one else from grief. Evan pro­tects not just the Mur­phys — who also in­clude fa­ther Larry (Aaron Lazar) and daugh­ter Zoe (Mag­gie McKenna), Evan’s crush — but also his own over­worked mother, Heidi (Jes­sica Phillips). She mustn’t know just how bad Evan’s de­pres­sion was last sum­mer, nor how much more joy he gets bask­ing in the Mur­phys’ grat­i­tude (and wealth) than he finds in his own hum­bler and usu­ally empty home. For Heidi, Evan must be spared the added misery of her own worry. The pair tip­toe around each other less like fam­ily mem­bers than po­litely co­ex­ist­ing ac­quain­tances, each tak­ing care to re­strict ex­cess mo­tion or emo­tion, lest a sud­den move should shat­ter an eg­gshell equi­lib­rium.

But the trou­ble with grief, the show as­tutely il­lus­trates, is that you can never pre­empt it. You can de­fer it or sub­li­mate it with a lie that works at first like a gift: No, your dead son who seemed an­gry and un­know­able was re­ally a kind friend; don’t worry, Mom, I’m chug­ging along just fine at school.

But those lies beget other kinds of grief: Why didn’t I get to see this lovely side of my dead son, whose loss I mourned a long time ago, for whom now I can only mourn the fact that I can­not mourn? What’s wrong with me that you didn’t feel close to me or trust me enough to tell me the truth?

These redo­lent emo­tional lay­ers keep “Dear Evan Hansen” thrum­ming through a score whose chord-pound­ing an­thems bleed to­gether — even as the cast makes them glow with warmth — and lyrics that can wax generic: “You and me,” Zoe and Evan sing, “That’s all that we need it to be, and the rest of the world falls away.”

That in­born com­plex­ity also helps mask that Evan gets off kind of easy. For all the wor­ry­ing he does about com­ing clean and los­ing ev­ery­one who’s come to care about him, the show doesn’t spend much time on the fall­out of his choices.

That’s not to say that Evan nec­es­sar­ily needs to be pun­ished. It’s more that you can tell that Leven­son, Pasek and Paul’s char­ac­ters are richly en­vi­sioned enough to be good at reck­on­ing. In par­tic­u­lar, the show be­stows so much more hu­man­ity on the moth­ers than teenager-cen­tric mu­si­cals usu­ally do. So you acutely feel the la­cuna where in­sights and self-dis­cov­er­ies might be when they skip straight from cli­mac­tic rev­e­la­tion to de­noue­ment.

But that de­noue­ment, set more than a year af­ter the rest of the story, still holds trea­sures. Ross as Evan still main­tains a be­guil­ingly re­cep­tive ex­pres­sion, ev­ery an­ten­nae of his fa­cial mus­cles on high alert. But he’s less twitchy now, a lit­tle less in­clined to try to swal­low his words whole or crank his jaw back into place af­ter an er­rant in­ter­jec­tion. They were never that er­rant, though. He was al­ways a win­some young man, even at the height of his sad­ness, and you can see a lit­tle con­scious­ness of that now, in Ross’ face. That same open­ness he al­ways showed on the out­side, he’s now turn­ing in­ward, invit­ing him­self out to the rest of the world.

She feasts on his words with an at­ten­tion he gets nowhere else in his life. Is it any won­der he lets a fib snow­ball into an elab­o­rate, all-con­sum­ing lie?

Matthew Mur­phy / Cur­ran

Pho­tos by Matthew Mur­phy / Cur­ran

“Dear Evan Hansen,” about a teen who lies to a fam­ily for at­ten­tion af­ter a son com­mits sui­cide, opens its na­tional tour at the Cur­ran in San Fran­cisco.

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen also lies to Jes­sica Phillips as his mother, Heidi Hansen, in an ill-con­ceived at­tempt to spare her from grief in “Dear Evan Hansen.”

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