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Review: A social media star is born in 'Dear Evan Hansen,' as the hit Broadway musical arrives in L.A. in tip-top form

Review: A social media star is born in 'Dear Evan Hansen,' as the hit Broadway musical arrives in L.A. in tip-top form
Ben Levi Ross in the title role of "Dear Evan Hansen" at the Ahmanson Theatre. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

There are many reasons “Dear Evan Hansen,” the Tony-winning musical that more than lived up to expectations at its glorious opening Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre, has become a cultural phenomenon.

First and foremost, it’s an enthralling show that marries story and song as dexterously as “Fun Home,” “Hamilton” or this year’s Tony-winner, “The Band’s Visit.” (Judging by the best musical winners for the last four years, one would have to conclude that the American musical is thriving. The reality is more complicated, but the bright side is very bright.)

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“Dear Evan Hansen” also elevated the career of “Pitch Perfect” co-star Ben Platt, whose soul-baring performance as the socially awkward title character who becomes a social-media hero under false pretenses earned him a Tony Award and a fan base (count me among them) that can’t wait to see what he does next.

And then there’s the diverting landscape of screens speaking directly to the Instagram generation. Young people who would rather churn butter than speak to someone face to face can’t help appreciating the realism of a show in which a good portion of the dialogue occurs through laptops and smartphones.

But this beautifully acted touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” under the aerodynamic direction of Michael Greif, revealed to me, in my third encounter with the musical, another explanation for why everyone right now in Los Angeles is clamoring for tickets: It’s one of the most evocative portraits of the inner turmoil of adolescence ever put on stage.

The book by Steven Levenson and the score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul capture not only the emotional challenges of those arduous high school years but also the moral tests we sometimes flunk as we fumble toward adult graduation.

Ben Levi Ross, a 20-year-old actor who grew up in Santa Monica and is bound for the theatrical big-time with this performance, is sensational as Evan, a character who wears a cast on his broken arm and could use a few splints and bandages for his fractured inner self. Physically, Ross’ Evan seems more fragile than Platt’s; psychologically, he’s just as profoundly wounded. (Stephen Christopher Anthony assumes the demanding role of Evan on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees and on Sunday evening performances.)

Bullied at school and unable to respond to an innocuous greeting without apologizing for his convulsive awkwardness, Evan finds shelter in the isolation of his home. He confides to us in his transcendent early number “Waving Through a Window” the depth of his alienation, the sense of being “on the outside always lookin’ in.”

His mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips, wonderfully balancing maternal sympathy with single parent grit), is a nurse’s aide scrambling to pay the bills while taking courses at night to become a paralegal. Dinner is usually a solo affair for Evan, who would rather skip a meal than risk small talk with a delivery person.

To conquer his social anxiety, Evan has been advised by a therapist to write letters of encouragement to himself. Prodded by his mother to complete the week’s assignment, Evan prints out a copy of his missive at school, where it ends up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), a troubled fellow senior whose instinct is to lash out at a world he can find no comfortable place in.

Jessica Phillips as Heidi Hansen with Ben Levi Ross as Heidi's son, Evan, in "Dear Evan Hansen."
Jessica Phillips as Heidi Hansen with Ben Levi Ross as Heidi's son, Evan, in "Dear Evan Hansen." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The discovery of this letter after Connor commits suicide has wild consequences for Evan, who becomes the object of obsessive interest from Connor’s grief-stricken parents. Mistaking the letter for Connor’s suicide note to a friend they didn’t know he had, the Murphys essentially adopt Evan into their relatively wealthy household.

Cynthia (Christiane Noll), Connor’s stay-at-home mother, is desperate to believe that her son was more than just a raging, self-destructive terror. Larry (Aaron Lazar), her lawyer husband, is relieved that Evan is distracting his wife from sorrow he finds oppressive.

Meanwhile, Evan can’t get over the way fate has brought him into close contact with Zoe (Maggie McKenna), Connor’s lovely sister, who has long occupied a central place in his fantasy life. Love isn’t the only reason Evan starts scheming with his wiseacre classmate Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith) to create a back story in emails of his fictitious friendship with Connor.

Evan’s suspect motives are mixed with the desire to provide solace to a bereaved family. But his con takes on a life of its own. When Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), a student who copes with her own outsider status through relentless industriousness, helps launch the memorial Connor Project, Evan’s story goes viral, turning the school loser into an internet celebrity.

Don’t even try to guess how the story plays out. “Dear Evan Hansen” is continually surprising, but what’s impressive about the work is how, even when a plot point strains credibility, the characters are always psychologically true.

Aaron Lazar, from left, Jared Goldsmith, Phoebe Koyabe, Ben Levi Ross, as Evan Hansen, and Maggie McKenna perform in "Dear Evan Hansen" at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Aaron Lazar, from left, Jared Goldsmith, Phoebe Koyabe, Ben Levi Ross, as Evan Hansen, and Maggie McKenna perform in "Dear Evan Hansen" at the Ahmanson Theatre. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Evan’s inner life is revealed magnificently in song. Ross may not have Platt’s feathery falsetto reach, but his voice has a radiant strength that fills the Ahmanson with its luminosity. When Evan’s reckoning comes in the number “Words Fail,” Ross unleashes the backlog of pain that fueled the character’s emotional Ponzi scheme.

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McKenna’s Zoe is wise beyond her years, yet her precocious sensitivity is leavened with the right amount of adolescent rebellion. McKenna’s singing has a folk beauty, with every trill deeply felt in a performance that justifies Evan’s willingness to do just about anything to be with Zoe

Smith humanizes Connor. When Jared cracks that Connor’s long hair is “school shooter chic,” the joke lands because Connor’s destructiveness has everyone on edge. But in scenes that I’ll simply describe as daringly imaginative, Smith’s portrayal hints that there may be more to Connor than antagonism and aggression.

Instead of regretting, as I sometimes do, that many Ahmanson theatergoers are missing out on the original Broadway cast, I wish New York theatergoers would have the opportunity to see this faultless touring ensemble. Comparisons would only point out different qualities of excellence, so if you’ve seen the show already on Broadway you’ll be glad to experience it again in this distinctive incarnation.

The physical production, expertly wielding Peter Nigrini’s projections and David Korins’ pinpoint set pieces, has been tailored to the Ahmanson stage. The sound blares a bit in a few of the rousing group numbers, adding a layer of harshness to the driving pop-rock score, but the musical seems perfectly at home here.

Jared Goldsmith, left, and Marrick Smith perform in, "Dear Evan Hansen."
Jared Goldsmith, left, and Marrick Smith perform in, "Dear Evan Hansen." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

If there’s one significant shortcoming, it’s the length of the show, which could use some tightening in the first act setup and perhaps a little more dramatic efficiency in an ending that has a few false starts.

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But the wisecracking of Goldsmith’s Jared is too crackling to cut. Koyabe’s Alana widens the scope of teenage tribulations. And McKenna’s affecting performance makes one wish that Zoe’s role was larger.

The character work of the actors is exceptional. The scene in which Lazar’s Larry expresses paternal care for the essentially fatherless Evan will have a few men in the house furtively flicking away tears. Noll’s Cynthia is too genuinely devastated to be jokingly dismissed as a pampered housewife. And the somber pride with which Phillips’ Heidi rejects a proposal of aid from the Murphys sheds stirring light on the resolve of this overwhelmed single mother.

Naturally, the heart and soul of the show is Ross’ Evan, who matures the hard way before our very eyes. An undeserving hero he may be, but this extraordinary lead performance is heroic in the truth it exposes about our error-strewn paths from youthful alienation toward that distant mountain of self-acceptance.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Dear Evan Hansen’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 25 (call for exceptions)

Tickets: $99-$285 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission)

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