Getting to the heart of family heartbreak
Teen’s lies over loss reveal there’s no running from mourning
“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?
“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.”