Young people hear what ‘Evan Hansen’ is saying

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and the Company of the First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen” Photo by Matthew Murphy. 2018.

BOSTON – The vibe at the Citizens Bank Opera House in Boston was young, and the applause at the end of each of the musical numbers was as strong and sustained as if it were a football or baseball game.

It was evident that the national touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which won six Tony Awards on Broadway in 2017, was speaking to young theater-goers in a way that no musical had since, say, “Rent.”

“Dear Evan Hansen” checks a lot of boxes when it comes to the issues it touches upon: Mental illness, alienation and isolation. and the power of social media, all seen through the prism of an awkward teenager struggling to fit in and find his place.

It is another in a series of modern American musical successes that have had nothing to do with  falling chandeliers or mountainous barricades: Simple relationships between human beings will do. It is also organic in that it didn’t derive from a book, film or other source.

His father left the home when Evan (Ben Levi Ross) was just 7, and later remarried and started a new family in a far-off place ; now Evan is often home alone as his mother Heidi (Jessica Phillips) struggles to get by and prepares for a  new career that will better support the family.

The stars in Evan’s orbit are limited; there is his sarcastic, wise-cracking friend Jared Kleinman (a very funny Jared Goldsmith) who says he’s only being nice to Evan to please his own family.

There’s Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe),  a smart but somewhat off-putting classmate; and, well, not much else.

Ben Levi Ross as ‘Evan Hansen’ and the Company of the First North American Tour of “Dear Evan Hansen” Photo by Matthew Murphy. 2018.

As part of his therapy for his social anxiety, Evan regularly pens life-affirming letters to himself  describing what will be good about that day.

His mother also urges Evan, nursing a broken arm in a cast, to ask others to sign his cast as a way to reach out.. Jared and Alana decline, but in a series of complicated interactions the cast is eventually signed by a troubled classmate named Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), who just happens to be the brother of the girl he pines for from a distance, Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna), in the number “Waving from a Window.”

Connor also discovers one of Evan’s letters to himself and is angered at the mention of Zoe in it, and storms off pocketing the letter. The signature on the cast and the letter – found in Connor’s pocket after his suicide and believed to be a suicide note  – draw him into the orbit of the Murphy family, including not only Zoe but guilt-ridden parents Larry (Aaron Lazar) and Cynthia (Christiane Noll); the entire  family had been struggling for years unable to reach their troubled son

Unfortunately, it’s all too convenient for Evan to play up to the Murphys and lie about  his relationship with their son, especially as  Zoe sees him a whole new light in what he and his relationship with her late brother means to her grieving parents, and helps assuage her own guilt   about her own troubled relationship with her brother.

The lies spiral out of control and even spill onto social media, giving Evan the notoriety – and the girl – he always wanted, but with the devil to pay in the end.

The groundbreaking set by David Korins is an amalgam of continuous computer streams: news feeds, social media, tweets, likes, Facebook posts, emails, the various monitors and streams hovering over the players, continuously representing the overwhelming, ubiquitous presence and influence of social media. It is a dizzying digital display.

The book by Steven Levenson is the key to the piece. It steadily adds new levels of deception and plot twists and ratchets up the intensity at every turn. It is probably because of the physical and mental demands of the role that by Stephen Christopher Anthony will replace Ross as Evan Hansen in matinee performances

The Tony, Grammy, Grammy and Golden Globe  songwriting team of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul have been seemingly everywhere at once in the last few years, including  scores for the stage musicals  “Dear Evan Hansen” and “A Christmas Story, The Musical,”   but also for the hit films “La La Land” and the “The Greatest Showman.”

For this production they have crafted a spot-on score, including the soaring anthem “You Will be Found.” The other musical numbers all serve their purpose and I can’t think of one that wasn’t perfectly positioned or necessary for the production.

In a show this successful, it goes without saying the fingerprints of director Michael Greif are everywhere you look. The pacing is just right; the performances both compelling and complementary.

 “Dear Evan Hansen” is often uncomfortable to watch, especially when Evan’s lies beget more lies and he and Zoe are drawn inexorably together, and when his burgeoning relationship with the Murphys forces his overworked, beleaguered mother to the back of the bus.

Other musicals – “Spring Awakening” comes to mind – have plumbed the depths of teen angst skillfully, but perhaps none have done so with more skill than Levenson, Pasek and Paul and their talented cast have done in “Dear Evan Hansen.”

The North American touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen.” Book by Steven Levenson. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston. Through Aug. 4. Tickets start at $49.50. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com.

The company of the first North American tour Photo by Matthew Murphy 2018