Where Every Family Matters

Review: The Power and Importance of “Dear Evan Hansen”

One of Broadway's greatest shows in recent history gives its audience a collective catharsis. Bring extra tissues!

Broadway at TPAC presents:
Dear Evan Hansen (Sept. 10 – 15; Ages 12 & older)
TPAC's Jackson Hall
505 Deaderick St., Nashville
615-782-4040 | tpac.org
Showtimes: Tue – Thu 7:30 p.m., Fri 8 p.m., Sat 2 & 8 p.m., Sun 1 & 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: $50 – $85
Note: The show is sold out. You can participate in the digital lottery in hopes of scoring up to two tickets for $25 each at https://hub.luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen.
Lottery seats are available at every performance.

For those of you lucky enough to have scored tickets to the smash Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen at TPAC this week, brace yourselves for the theatrical experience of a lifetime! It kicks off TPAC's 2019 – 2020 Broadway Series, and it sets the bar high for the rest of the season. Having seen this epic musical on Tuesday night (it opened on Broadway in December 2016), it comes as no surprise that it picked up six Tony Awards in 2017, including Best Musical and Best Score.

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect going into opening night at TPAC other than awareness of the show's heavy subject matter, but I've seen lots of shows addressing difficult topics. Dear Evan Hansen is far different from any Broadway show I've seen before. It's superior in the relativity of its content to a modern-day audience, it's emotionally gripping beyond compare and it's a rare example of a show whose musical numbers are all on point — there's no filler here. Add to that an entire cast so extremely talented that the whole result, start to finish, is flawless. It's a recipe that serves up the most powerfully engaging musical you're likely to ever encounter.

I love how live theater hits us in so many different ways, from goofball comedies to intense dramas to political satire to passionate romantic storylines. They say art imitates life, and that's true to many extents. But the power of what unfolds in Dear Evan Hansen is the most poignant in that arena. This landmark musical — with a book by Steven Levenson and music/lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — strikes emotional chords beyond compare. By the end of Act I, I already had a lump in my throat, and at the same time before intermission Dear Evan Hansen became my new all-time favorite musical because of how strongly I identify not only with Evan but all other characters as well … and the production itself is as rock solid as they come!

From a youth perspective, themes of isolation, not fitting in, feeling like you don't matter, anxiety, depression, suicide and the undeniable power of social media are rampant through the show — those themes are just as pertinent to adults as they are to teens. There's the lie that spins out of control by the boy who started it; for a while it gets him what he's always wanted (acceptance and love) until it all blows up and backfires. Then there are the moms who are scratching their heads yearning for the non-existent parenting roadmap.

Dear Evan Hansen so brilliantly captures our society's social media fixation — along with the ironic isolation factor that comes with the technology that's supposed to better connect us. David Korins' inventive scenic design, coupled with projection design by Peter Nigrini, sets the perfect stage. It's visually exquisite and pulls you right into the drama unfolding onstage whether its in a living room or the abyss of the Internet.


The cast in this darkly comical musical is outstanding across the board. Ben Levi Ross stars as Evan, and within his first few moments onstage, the 21-year-old immediately endears himself to the audience. Ross expertly delivers Evan's awkward, nervous twitch to the length that you just want to hug the character and tell him he's OK from the get-go. Even though Evan goes to a lot of links to perpetuate a lie, Ross' portrayal has you understanding why he's doing it, and lot of compassion and empathy arises from the audience as a result.

The incomparable Christiane Noll puts forth unforgettable, heart- and gut-wrenching emotion as Cynthia Murphy, mom to teenage drug-using son Connor (Marrick Smith), who kills himself. While the other characters in the show ride waves emotionally, it's evident that for Cynthia, Connor's death is always in the room, and Noll's approach to such grief is striking in the way she draws you into the depths of Cynthia's pain.

Likewise, Jane Pfitsch as Evan's mom Heidi equally serves up an intense amount of passion and feelings upon the realization that she's become completely out of the loop with her son. There are so many heart-touching moments in this show, but one of the most intimate is Pfitsch's performance of "So Big/So Small" at the end of the show.

All of the other cast members do exemplary work: Aaron Lazar as Connor and Zoe's distant father Larry Murphy; Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy, Connor's sister and Evan's love interest; Marrick Smith as Connor Murphy, who, like Evan, is a social outcast with no friends; the delightful Phoebe Koyabe as the precocious, often insufferable Alana Beck; and Jared Goldsmith as Jared Kleinman, Evan's insecure family friend — he delivers a lot of the comedic moments in the show. Yes, there are plenty of funny scenes amid dark themes, because that, too, is real life. Evan's ability to laugh at himself and make the audience laugh with him is crucial, and Ross shines bright in those moments.

The Dear Evan Hansen score is perhaps the most emotionally resonant one in Broadway history. The cast's performances of the show's 16 musical numbers are extremely compelling. Ross' dynamic vocals in particular are simply outstanding, and there are many instances throughout the show where the cast's musical performances result in goose-bump moments. Favorites include "For Forever," "Requiem," "You Will Be Found," Good for You" and "So Big/So Small."

The beauty of Dear Evan Hansen is how powerfully it shows us pieces of ourselves. It's relevant and relatable. Everyone will connect with at least one character in the show, and you'll likely recognize your own loved ones within others.

We all experience a disconnect with friends and and family members at some point in time, often without realizing it because of the way we can isolate. Seeing that play out onstage in this show is a big tug. Watching parents realize they don't know their kids or what's happening in their lives ("I had no idea!"), seeing young "misfits" wander through the anxiety of isolation, experiencing the backlash of a lie and ultimately, the power of forgiveness — it's all stuff so magnificently carried out onstage that you become of a part of it. I found myself loving every single character in the show and understanding them deeply, regardless of whether they were right or wrong.

There was nary a dry eye in Jackson Hall on opening night. There was truly a sense of a collective catharsis among the entire audience. Bring extra tissues! And if you're a hanky-toting guy, this is a two-hanky show!

The importance of Dear Evan Hansen is how it jars you into a reality check by way of moving you down to the core of your being. I left the show with a lump in my throat needing to reach out to everyone I know to tell them they matter and they are enough just as they are, especially those closest to me … especially those I haven't talked to recently. Talk about the undeniable force of truly powerful theater!

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