By Patrick Hurley
Stories of teenage turmoil have been being told for centuries. The misunderstood youth trope nearly always serves a narrative wherein a moral dilemma serves as edification to an ignorant, older audience. Shakespeare killed his young star-crossed lovers. The adults in their lives had driven them to suicide because of their inability to reconcile differences with each other, thus preaching the dictum of embracing each other’s differences. Dear Evan Hansen, the Broadway phenomenon, which is currently on its first national tour, playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, is the most recent iteration of the misunderstood youth narrative, and this time, as is the custom with today’s YA fiction, it wants to feel like an inside job.
The Young Adult genre has been exploding for the last twenty years thanks to stories like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. These stories, among countless others, work from the point of view of the teenage protagonists and aim for a much younger audience. Adults are able to delve into these worlds as well, mostly because the writers tend to remove all sense of placation and really attempt to relate to the hormonal, highly charged emotional turmoil that is adolescence. And we all can remember that. So the genre has become a formulaic powerhouse by appealing to a mass audience. This is accomplished through several narrative devices that seem to appear in most of these stories. And we’re going to examine how a few of them apply to Dear Evan Hansen, and how they help or hinder the success of this particular narrative. First, we have the somehow damaged protagonist: in order to set up high enough stakes, the protagonist must have an internal or external obstacle that makes him or her seem emotionally or physically incapable of the story that is about to happen. For Evan Hansen (A wonderful Ben Levi Ross) it’s an undisclosed mental illness. We know he takes medication, but we’re not sure for what. He also expresses idiosyncratic twitching and awkward movements that implicate some kind of disorder. By not saying, the writer is allowing us to decide the severity, which may or not work if you start to pick apart the story and its themes. We shall see.
Next, is the Big Event that sets off the inciting incident, for Katniss it’s the Choosing Ceremony where she basically has to choose to put herself in a life and death situation. For Evan, it’s the suicide of Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) that causes a chain of events that will eventually become bigger than he can handle. Another device that makes YA literature thrive is having kids who don’t act like kids. This could be Hollywood’s fault. Casting people, sometimes in their late twenties to play High School aged kids has led to an expectation of illogical maturity and self-reliance in our teenage characters now. For this show, Jared (Jared Goldsmith) is our wiser, much more aware teenage character, who sort of serves to explain to the audience, the moral implications of what Evan’s doing. He foreshadows the consequences. He is there as a device that somehow isn’t really needed in Act Two, because I don’t even recall when his last scene even happens.
Then there’s the villain or antagonist who is bad simply because he or she needs to be. It’s the least compelling part of the YA genre. Good is good and bad is bad. In our current political climate of us versus them, this is problematic. For Evan Hansen it’s even more problematic than usual. The bad guy in this story is Connor Murphy, the teenager who commits suicide. Okay, so this is necessary if we want the catharsis that Evan must experience in order to grow and learn. But wait, let’s make this black and white: Evan uses the suicide of a fellow teen to propel himself. He tells vicious lies and manipulates the family of a suicide victim and because we don’t like the teen that died, we’re okay with it? Or is his motive because he takes pills for something and can’t be fully held responsible?
Or is it more complicated than that? Let’s find out.
The next device is the seemingly absent parent. For Evan, this is literal, in the fact that his father has abandoned him and his mother for another family in another state. But it’s also true within the narrative with his mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips). Heidi is a single mother who struggles to make ends meet and so must spend a good deal of her time at work. This serves to push Evan to have a deep and severe longing for a family. To feel a part of something. Okay, so that’s motive number two for Evan, his mother can’t provide the stable family life that he needs, so naturally he tries to steal the dead kids family. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that this show suggests that single mother’s are inferior to families that include a father, and focus on…no, no, I think we should stay on that one. The show has a chance to show that Evan’s desire to have a societally accepted “normal” family life, could be challenged by the reality that families come in many different forms, but instead when his mother discovers the terrible lies and manipulations he’s been perpetrating, she apologizes for the life she’s offered him and kind of asks him to forgive her. So somehow Evan was wronged? So the victim narrative is at full volume here? Let’s check.
Evan takes pills for some kind of disorder…we assume.
Evan does something pretty terrible.
Evan doesn’t have a family. And his mom isn’t good enough for him.
It’s not Evan’s fault.
Oh, yeah, yeah, we’re in victimhood here. Okay, moving on.
We finally have the love story. Most YA fiction deals with falling in love, because at that time in our lives what could be more dramatic. It heightens everything. For Evan, he is in love with Connor’s sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna). His adoration for her, serves as the device that leads to the inciting incident and starts the awful chain of events. Where this story differs from most is in the fact that Evan is kind of deplorable in his seduction methods. Zoe’s brother Connor, who she conveniently hated, she even expresses this shortly after he’s taken his own life, almost suggesting that she’s happy he did, becomes the thing Evan uses to get closer to Zoe. He actually creates stories about a boy who commits suicide, in order to get with a girl. Because…? Well Connor wasn’t a good kid. He kind of should have died? It’s okay to manipulate a girl with a calculated and really detailed false account of her dead brother’s life? So Dear Evan Hansen is essentially the story of an outcast, with some kind of mental disorder, who uses a suicide to trick people into seeing him as something he’s not. To feel normal. With a resolution that not only excuses it, but maybe even suggests it was necessary. Kids today, if they’re not on their phones twenty four seven, they’re plotting the slow emotional destruction of a grieving family. But, well, I mean, I guess he does take pills, so it might not really be his fault. Plus his mom works. Hashtag real world problems. So how does a production handle a story like this? The answer is lots of flash. So be warned, you might love this show. Most people do. I am absolutely in the minority here, and even I enjoyed a lot of it. It’s impressive.
This production is pretty stunning to look at. Peter Nigrini creates a projection design that is thrilling and innovative. Surrounding the stage with digital screens that project all the different social media worlds that teenagers pretty much exist in now. David Korins’ scenic design is equally sleek and impressive, as is the beautiful lighting design by Japhy Weideman. And the music, at least in Act One, is powerful and advances the story well. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul create some truly memorable musical moments, most particularly “Waving Through a Window” which beautifully captures the feeling of isolation and desperate longing that teenagers often feel.
The issue then is not a production one, it is a dramaturgical one. Steven Levenson’s book is flawed. It plays too easily upon sentiment. It ignores really upsetting behaviors, in favor of victim narratives, and it placates societal expectations instead of challenging them. And most importantly, for me anyway, is that we have a story about suicide and mental illness where mental illness is not only never fully addressed, but is actually negated! At one point, Evan has stopped taking his meds, and in the end, he’s grown and learned. So, does that mean that mental illness is an excuse for bad behavior until we don’t want to have that behavior anymore? Or until we go so far as to psychologically and emotionally devastate an entire family because you think you have it bad?
I, one-hundred percent do not understand what I’m supposed to walk away with from this show. But what I did walk away with is that flashy production value and some good songs placed inside a narrative drenched in sentimentality, disguised as morality, will work every time. This show has carved a space for itself in Musical Theatre history because it wants us to believe its telling us a morality play that we can all relate to. It’s a magic trick, and it works. We buy it for the package it comes in. We drop nuance for flash because we’re the Instagram generation now. Maybe I’m too old to get it, but I don’t see how surface content will ever be preferable to actual human depth. Just the fact that a suicide victim can now be a device for bad behavior without any consideration toward the suicide epidemic in today’s youth, is a stunning example of how an entire generation might actually just be accepting themselves as the center of the universe. Evan literally makes the tragedy of a teenager’s suicide about himself. And even when Evan learns his lesson, it’s excused because of the very deep and complex reason…no, no, wait…oh that’s right, it’s just “poor him.” Not exactly a wellspring of psychological depth here, but a sleight of hand that deserves at least a little tip of the hat for pulling it off.
Dear Evan Hansen
Directed by Michael Greif
Runs two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.
Ticket Prices: $99 $285
(Ticket prices are subject to change.)
135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.
Tickets are available Online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.972.4400
In person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at The Music Center
Group Sales: 213.972.7231