TAMPA — When a super-hyped show comes to town, whose fault is that? Should the creators and cast of a show like Dear Evan Hansen be downgraded for the fact that this musical doesn’t live up to the high expectations set by others?
Because that’s the case with the touring production at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The world has been infatuated with the angsty high school musical since its debut in 2016, rewarding it with Tony awards for best musical and for Steven Levenson’s best book of a musical.
And it’s not hard to see why. The trappings are magnificent, particularly in the set design by David Korins, a floor-to-ceiling panorama of computer screens, their translucent light seducing and harming our eyes. Social media feeds flash above the characters’ heads, too much to take in. It is a brilliant visual picture of a society increasingly living in cyberspace, which is literally black.
The themes of this story, based on a real event recorded by co-songwriter Benj Pasek (with Justin Paul), also aim high. While other Broadway hits such as The Book of Mormon and The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time might touch on a similar theme or two, Dear Evan Hansen is certainly the only show to plumb the depths of teen loneliness, awkwardness and quasi-suicidal despair in such an acute and prolonged way. The plight of Evan and his peers is the same bundle of anxieties all adolescents face, a distractible mix of fear, pressure and hormones just as they are trying out — and critiquing — a social front.
Add pleasing, often acoustic instrumentals from a second-floor deck and solid performances — this production is no exception — and you have a hit.
There is only one thing missing, namely an engaging enough plot to sustain a two-and -a- half-hour musical. Evan is a bright, socially inept 17-year-old who lives with his mother. He’s been following his therapist’s instructions to write letters to himself, little pep talks about why he will succeed.
One of these letters, an honest lament about his lack of hope, is intercepted by Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), a disaffected peer with deeper issues. Not insignificantly, Connor’s sister Zoe happens to be the object of Evan’s affections.
Connor somehow believes Evan concocted the letter as part of an elaborate prank intended to mock him. He kills himself a day or two later.
His disturbing death is no loss to Evan, who found Connor strange and bullying. But because he died with the Evan’s letter in his pocket, Connor’s parents believe they have uncovered a friendship they didn’t know he had.
A chain of lies follows. Evan, seeing how much the boy’s parents need to believe in this friendship, confirms this false narrative, endearing him to Connor’s more affluent family and Zoe (Maggie McKenna). The story spreads to Evan’s school, assisted by another lonely teen, Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), who needs to feel a part of something.
Evan employs the computer-savvy Jared (Jared Goldsmith) to help concoct the fake friendship. Gradually, Evan pulls away from his mother and spends more time with the Murphys and Zoe.
Evan’s self-penned despairing letter winds up going viral.
Meanwhile, Connor’s death becomes a viral sensation complete with a fundraising campaign designed to “remember” a loner no one cared about previously.
While Dear Evan Hansen has been framed as a moving exploration of the psychological dangers facing teenagers, especially mental illness and teen suicide, its strongest moments are actually this commentary on our capacity to eulogize the dead in glowing terms, often turning them into fictional characters.
The deception unravels, as everyone in the theater surely knew it would. Getting to that point entailed about 500 moments of mistaken identity sitcom humor as Evan tugs at his shirttail and keeps the story afloat. This posthumous myth-making comforts the family, a point which adds nuance and depth and almost redeems Evan.
Songs toward the beginning and end, For Forever and So Big/So Small, add truly moving moments enhanced by the performances of Ben Levi Ross as Evan and Jessica Phillips as his mother Heidi. Christiane Noll also does more than her share as Cynthia Murphy, Connor and Zoe’s mom. In between lies a long string of imaginative falsehoods that barely miss being detected, the stuff of farce.
But farce usually involves complicated plots, interlocking deceptions and mistaken identities. This show runs on a single gag and loses its suspense value before long. It makes excellent material for young people. For those who like to be engaged throughout, this smash hit falls short.
IF YOU GO
Dear Evan Hansen
Runs through Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $99 and up. (813) 229-7827. For show times, go to strazcenter.org.