Broadway in Cincinnati's 'Dear Evan Hansen' Navigates Mental Illness in Relatable, Moving Production

Currently at the Aronoff Center, "Dear Evan Hansen" is a story about families trying (and often failing) to connect with one another in the digital age

click to enlarge Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen (center) and the company of the first North American tour of "Dear Evan Hansen" - Photo: Matthew Murphy
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen (center) and the company of the first North American tour of "Dear Evan Hansen"

You will be found.

That message drives Broadway in Cincinnati's production of Dear Evan Hansen forward. Currently onstage at the Aronoff Center as part of its U.S. tour, the Tony award-winning musical vividly encapsulates how it feels to be a modern teenager living in a world of uncertainty. It wades through the titular Evan’s anxieties, self-doubt and trauma with great care. He wishes that he was a part of something. That he was someone. That he was seen.

It’s a production that has been hailed for its ability to make teenagers and young people feel understood and seen. But on a broader scope, it’s a story about mental illness, families trying (and often failing) to connect with one another in the digital age.

More specifically, it follows the story of Evan, a 17-year-old with social anxiety disorder, as he returns to school after the summer break. He wears a cast that no one has yet signed and — per his therapist’s orders — writes letters to himself that focus on the positive.

Instead, Evan begins a letter: “Turns out today wasn’t amazing after all. This isn’t going to be an amazing week or an amazing year, because why would it be?”

The letter is taken by Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), the angry brother of Zoe (Maggie McKenna), upon whom Evan has a hopeless crush. When Connor dies by suicide, his parents find the note, believing that their son wrote the letter to Evan, the best friend they never knew he had. Except the two weren't even acquaintances. Out of sympathy — and fear — Evan goes along with the initial assumption; and Connor’s parents find comfort in believing that their son had a friend.

That moment pushes the rest of the production into motion.

Throughout, transparent screens crowd the stage, displaying social media feeds — Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook — emails, Spotify, texts and viral videos. At times of stress, these images amplify, overlay one another, and create chaos. Voices call out in the echo chamber. Trapped in the center is Evan.

Playing the role of Evan is Ben Levi Ross, who embodies the character seamlessly. In the first moments, we can feel his anxiety in the way he fidgets, squirms and holds tension in his body.

Evan is wholly felt both in the writing and Ross’ portrayal. With a book by Steven Levenson and music/lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen feels authentic and relatable. David Korins designed the set, which is mostly bare bones aside from the digital elements. That, too, also feels accurate — screens have become our architecture.

Weaved throughout is Evan’s backstory: He lives with a frazzled single mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), who is trying her best to make ends meet. And his dad isn’t in the picture.

That sense of abandonment plays out as he spends more time with the Murphys, who are eager to have him over. And Zoe not only notices Evan, but enters a relationship with him. Evan benefits from the lies he’s crafted, which spiral out of control.

In a lesser writer’s hands, it’d be easy to let Evan off the hook or condemn him for his wrongdoings. But neither is the case. Instead, much like life, Evan’s fate is open-ended.

The cast has an undeniable chemistry. Phillips, as Evan’s mom, is nuanced. We see her own struggles and guilt splayed out; her inner dialogue is riddled with just as many anxieties as her son’s. And McKenna’s Zoe, though low-key, is played with sincerity. There are Evan’s friends — played by Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe — who have their own gulfs of self-doubt, all expressed in disparate ways. (Goldsmith lends meme-inspired humor to the show, playing the role of an obnoxious nerd.) And there are the Murphys, played by Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar, whose characters navigate incomprehensible grief.

Director Michael Greif threads these elements together with great precision. The cast often looks out into the audience and sings, pouring out their inner thoughts. At times, it's as if we’re scrolling through a Reddit post or viewing a YouTube documentary. But the characters are also speaking to — and texting — one another. As the musical goes deeper, elements resurface and entwine. 

The world feels so big in this musical, and yet also small. It’s a contradiction subtly explored, but one that speaks to a globalized era. It’s easy to lose ourselves in these digitized webs of identity, but Dear Evan Hansen reminds us that today is going to be a good day. Because, in the end, all we need to do is step into the sun to be found. 

Dear Evan Hansen runs through May 12 at the Aronoff Center as presented by Broadway in Cincinnati. More info/tickets: cincinnatiarts.org.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Hotline, 1-800-273-8255; or the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline, 1-800-950-6264. Locally, the Hamilton County Talbert House Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-513-281-2273. Here's a list of local resources and services. 

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