'Evan Hanson' boldly takes on digital age disconnection


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on December 7, 2018 12:15 pm

The turn-off-your-cellphone announcement at the beginning of the national tour of “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Curran theater in San Francisco actually comes from big digital screen set pieces onstage.

It’s an appropriate opening to the six-Tony Award-winning show (including best musical) and first Broadway hit with a serious message about the dangers of social media.

Composers Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (Oscar winners for “La La Land”) came up with the theme after noticing how grieving has become a public pursuit via the internet. Their anthem-filled score bolsters Steven Levenson’s resonant book about an anxious, lonely teen who fakes a friendship with a classmate who dies by suicide, and earns viral accolades and a sense of belonging.

Michael Greif directs the timely story and spot-on cast with the drama, energy and realism he brought to “Rent” and “Next to Normal.”

As Evan, clear-voiced Ben Levi Ross nails the high notes and earns immediate empathy from his opening tune “Waving Through a Window,” as he warbles, “On the outside, always looking in/Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

Jessica Phillips is excellent as Evan’s single mom, the most sympathetic character, a busy nurse doing her best to help her troubled son.

Marrick Smith plays Connor Murphy, the equally troubled teen who has a brief encounter with Evan — he’s the only one who signs the cast on Evan’s broken arm — before his death sets the plot in action. (He also returns to haunt Evan.)

Connor’s parents Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar) quickly believe their son and Evan were friends when they find a note in Connor’s pocket that says “Dear Evan Hansen.” But the letter, which Connor grabbed from a printer at school, really was written by Evan, to himself, as a therapeutic measure.

And when Evan meets the Murphys — including their daughter Zoe (Maggie McKenna), whom he has a crush on — he likes their attention and reinforces their notion by making up stories about good times he spent with Connor.

Evan enlists his sole, forced-upon family friend, overly snarky Jared (Jared Goldsmith), to write fake emails to prove it.

The situation escalates when Evan gives a touching speech at Connor’s memorial service, and a video of it goes viral. The teens’ overachieving schoolmate Alana (nicely strident Phoebe Koyabe) creates The Connor Project, an online memorial and burgeoning business enterprise.

Things boom for Evan, until his lies catch up with him, somewhat abruptly.

Thought provoking throughout, “Dear Evan Hanson” isn’t perfect.

It’s odd that the characters rarely use their smart phones in this show about digital era disconnection. Their in-person dialogue is real and compelling — although some of Jared’s mean exchanges with Evan are unpalatable — yet their directness with each other somehow belies the premise.

Most of the songs, though bona fide chart hits, start quietly and crescendo expectedly, TV reality show-style, leaving some (including me) dry-eyed, though quite engaged, at the finale.

Still, “Dear Evan Hansen” has an important topic, and a great projection design (by Peter Nigrini), too. Big backdrops of social media platforms with real messages, even from Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, appealingly have no Twitter, Facebook or Instagram logos.

REVIEW
Dear Evan Hansen
Where: Curran, 445 Geary St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. most Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 and 7 p.m. most Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays
Tickets: Limited availability; $25 lottery at luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen
Contact: (415) 358-1220, sfcurran.com