Isolation is a painful reality for many young people. Teen movies across the decades feature cliques and loners, jocks and nerds all vying for a place in the sun. These stories have been interpreted over and over again with each contemporary generation’s own unique challenges.
“Dear Evan Hansen,” the current offering at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, is a heartbreaking yet spirit-lifting sucker punch about the difficulties of growing up lonely in an evermore connected modern world. It is beautiful, tragic and inspiring.
With a book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “Dear Evan Hansen” is the story of the title character, a socially awkward young man (Ben Levi Ross). He tries all too desperately to connect with people around him, even as he’s being crushed by the forest of social media that permeates modern life.
A chance run-in with the troubled Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) moments before Murphy takes his own life leads Hansen down a path of deceit — and a brief, yet expensive taste of popularity. The story that ensues is honest, relatable, and devastating.
Ross carries the show from beginning to end with a powerful and emotional performance as the troubled Evan Hansen. He succeeds in making the character vulnerable and likable from the beginning, which is necessary as we watch this protagonist descend into his web of lies.
Ross has one of those voices that seems well trained yet casual, allowing him to perform his many musical numbers with an ease that conceals great power and emotion. He has the entire audience in his hands from the first line, and cements the relationship early on in one of the show’s signature numbers, “Waving Through a Window.”
One of the driving difficulties in Hansen’s life is his single mother, Heidi, played with power by Jessica Phillips. Her role is balanced by Christiane Noll as Connor’s mother, Cynthia.
Together — in the opening number, “Anybody Have a Map?” — they address the difficulties of raising children no matter what advantages or disadvantages you are handed in life. As their journeys proceed, each actress fills the room with their strength and their pain.
The engine that powers this show is the youthful ensemble. The supporting actors inject just as much electricity into the story as the title character.
Smith’s Connor Murphy is a continuing presence in Evan’s mind, helping to explain the good intentions behind his bad decisions — and providing some fun along the way, especially in the high octane number “Sincerely, Me.”
As Connor’s sister and Evan’s love interest, Zoe, Maggie McKenna contributes passion and poise. The confused and conflicted Zoe is in good hands with McKenna’s pure voice and strong acting chops.
Adding a welcome dash of humor to the mix is Jared Goldsmith as Evan’s (not quite) friend Jared Kleinman. Humor often reveals the truth, and Goldsmith balances both the energetic smart aleck and moral conscience aspects of his character with precision.
He is joined in this endeavor by social media warrior and overachiever Alana Beck, played with heart — sometimes a heavy heart — by Phoebe Koyabe. Koyabe ably depicts both the passion and the fickleness of the world of social media.
In many ways, Connor’s father, Larry Murphy, is the most tragic figure as he grapples with his son’s choices. His attempts to be the stereotypical “strong male” crumble as he embarks on a quest to come to terms with his own contributions to Connor’s misery.
As Larry, Aaron Lazar’s churning emotion reaches above the surface most prominently in act two, with the song “To Break in a Glove.”
David Korins’ set design is a character in itself. The small cast is constantly engulfed in a sea of tweets, posts, shares, retweets, likes, and favorites — a gorgeous representation of how human lives get caught up like unsuspecting flies in the internet’s capricious web of judgment.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a study in contrasts. It is a study of how one person can feel alone despite a long list of social contacts.
It is a study of the fallaciously happy self so many of us post on social media that belies the turmoil inside each user.
It is a study of how real life can make us feel so small in a world that is so big, and alternately how the virtual world can make us feel so big in a world that is so small.
Ultimately, in the eyes of this musical, we all wave through our electronic windows. We succeed or fail. But really we are all souls who want to be found.
Timothy Titus is a guest columnist filling in for Tom Titus, who covers local theater.
IF YOU GO
What: “Dear Evan Hansen”
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays to Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. through Jan. 13
Cost: Starts at $35.75