By Christopher Caggiano
The touring company of Dear Evan Hansen is every bit as good as its Broadway counterpart.
Dear Evan Hansen, book by Steven Levenson, score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Presented by Broadway in Boston at the Citizens Bank Opera House, 539 Washington Street Boston, MA, through August 4.
Blockbuster Broadway musicals don’t come more unlikely than Dear Evan Hansen. The story centers around a young man with crippling social anxiety who becomes embroiled in a spiraling series of well-meaning but increasingly consequential lies about the suicide of a high school classmate.
Despite the dark subject matter, Dear Evan Hansen has become an enormous success. And not merely a modest moneymaker, like Fun Home or The Band’s Visit, its spiritual brethren, and fellow Tony-winners. Dear Evan Hansen is a veritable megahit, with a cumulative gross on Broadway of about $202 million.
More important, Dear Evan Hansen is also a genuinely strong show, with a nuanced book, a masterful score, and dynamic direction and design that merge to create a production of immense emotional impact.
Thankfully, the national tour of Dear Evan Hansen, now playing Boston’s Opera House, more than does justice to its Broadway mother ship. The physical production is virtually identical, and the cast is absolutely first-rate, making it that rare touring production that is every bit as good as what you’d see in New York City.
First among equals in the top-notch cast is Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy, the mother of Evan’s deceased classmate. Noll is a wonderfully familiar face on the Broadway scene, and she consistently brings layers of credible emotionality to everything she does. Also strong is Jessica Phillips as Heidi, Evan’s mother. Phillips was especially affecting during “So Big, So Small,” Heidi’s heartrending assurance to Evan that she’s not going to leave like his father did.
Of course, the real lynchpin to any cast of Dear Evan Hansen will be the young man who plays the title character, and Ben Levi Ross certainly doesn’t disappoint. Ross brings a palpable humanity to the role, and an unnerving realism to the character’s paralyzing anxiety. Although Ross possesses an undeniably strong singing voice, he’s somewhat more effective during Evan’s spoken scenes. Evan’s breakdown while speaking at a school assembly was almost unbearable to witness, which made the subsequent song, the anthemic “You Will Be Found,” a minor miracle of quiet dignity.
The true strength of Dear Evan Hansen as a show lies in its ability to make Evan’s story stirring but never lachrymose. That’s quite a balance to achieve, a testament to the skills of composer/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, as well as their librettist Steven Levenson. Levenson rightfully won the Tony Award for his book to Dear Evan Hansen, which is rich in sharp humor as well as character and situational complexity, which elevate what could have been maudlin material.
Pasek and Paul, who won the Tony for best score, write songs that reflect craft far beyond their years (both are a mere 34 years old). Between their songs for Dear Evan Hansen and their equally rich and complex score for the Off-Broadway musical Dogfight, Pasek and Paul have turned out to be among the best musical theater composer/lyricists currently working. Although they’ve also seen success writing for television and films, here’s hoping they return to the musical stage soon and often.
If you do see the Dear Evan Hansen tour during its Boston stop, a word of warning: try to sit close to the stage. Boston’s otherwise glorious Opera House is a terrible fit for a show like Dear Evan Hansen. At 2,677 seats, the Opera House is more than twice the size of the show’s Broadway berth, the Music Box Theatre (1,025 seats).
It would be great if Broadway in Boston could find a more appropriate venue for shows like Dear Evan Hansen, including Fun Home, Once, and Waitress, which have also played the Opera House. These shows have no earthly business playing such a cavernous auditorium.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.