Review: Ross is the boss in stellar ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ at the Curran

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Ben Levi Ross plays the title role of the socially anxious teen in “Dear Evan Hansen,” running through Dec. 30th at the Curran in San Francisco. (Matthew Murphy photo)

Teens these days are more connected to each other than ever before. When they aren’t on Instagram, they are posting stories and maintaining streaks on Snapchat, just seconds away from someone’s superficial affirmation.

The world of isolation dominates the characters in the wonderfully astute production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” in its Bay Area debut through the first national tour, now playing at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Directed by Michael Greif on a technically marvelous set by David Korins, the show features a rich score, a wonderful band with a wildly expressive music director and a compelling story with a highly polarizing character at the forefront.

Evan (a powerful, command performance by Ben Levi Ross) is prepared for the first day of his senior year, which is bound to become a no good very bad one. After trying to connect to family friend Jared (delightful levity by the comically-gifted Jared Kleinman), he comes to a meeting with the rugged and handsome Connor (viscerally appealing Marrick Smith). The meeting doesn’t go as bad as it could have. After all, when Connor shoved Evan into the ground, at least he didn’t kick him in the gut.

What we learn about Connor is telling. He is high when he comes to the kitchen table, a nice breakfast of weed before the first day of school. And there is clearly tension between the entire family unit, which includes mom Cynthia (an empathetic Jessica Phillips), dad Larry (delightfully pragmatic Aaron Lazar) and sister Zoe (well-ranged Maggie McKenna).

In a later interaction, which circles back to a moment when Evan asks Connor to sign his arm cast, Connor does in very big letters, filling up the entire thing with every mocking bone in his body.

Sadly, this is the final interaction between Connor and anyone, with his tragic fate following hard upon. Two events collide, which lead to Connor’s grieving parents finding a sliver of solace in Evan. The first is a letter, which Evan writes to himself, an exercise suggested by his therapist to help deal with his social anxiety. It’s the letter that sends everything into a tailspin. But the cast signing is more happenstance.

Things really get moving when, in a sign of the times, Evan’s efforts, coaxed mightily by the earnestness of Alana (a spirited turn by young Phoebe Koyabe), who is moved by the idea of keeping her “close acquaintance” alive.

The show’s strength rides on the coattails of the stripe-shirted marvel Ross, whose approach is rooted in truth. He doesn’t look at anyone with his eyes, but shoots darts with the top of his head, the lanky, wobbly teen whose every interaction is harrowing. He shreds vocally, with a zealous combination of romantic sentimentality and frenetic skittishness. The compositions by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul soar mightily from the golden throat of Ross.

Songs like “For Forever,” is warm and nostalgic, yet “Waving Through a Window” moves with vicious urgency. And in a more awkward exchange, the beautiful ballad “If I Could Tell Her” jets through space with a witty double meaning.

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The cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” (Matthew Murphy photo)

In all honesty, much of the show, especially the first act is terribly cringy. Evan delves deeper into deception and, in my view, becomes extremely unlikeable despite his challenges. It doesn’t help that he has his slimy friend Jared with him, who provides a ton of hilarity in the construction of backdated letters.

With Evan’s motivations not always clear initially, an interaction between him and Larry will be familiar to anyone who has ever went with their dads to buy a baseball glove. Just notice how Evan’s eyes light up at the most mundane of moments when it comes to oil and rubber bands. It doesn’t excuse the horrendous choices he makes but provides insight as to why he didn’t stop those choices as he and the Connor Project went viral.

Other characters do some phenomenal work, with two of the more heartbreaking choices made at the hands of the grieving mothers, both mourning different losses. The story of a nice tie for all the Bar Mitzvahs that Connor surely would have been invited to is especially painful, and when Evan’s mother Heidi (fantastic Jessica Phillips, who peaks with her number “So Big/So Small”) is duped into a meeting with Connor’s parents to get to the bottom of why he is spending so much time with his new family, the discovery of what her work has cost her son hurts. Heidi’s painful retort stings mightily; “If I knew how much we needed money, I wouldn’t have taken the night off.” It’s a heavy dagger to the heart.

While the play is loaded with magnificent detail, the denouement leaves a bit to be desired. I mean, I am not looking for a revenge fantasy against a dude that did much to disrupt the ecosystem of a grieving unit, but I was certainly not fully moved by his plight based on my much greater empathy for the family.

“Dear Evan Hansen” does not provide answers, nor should it. It’s a musical that speaks so greatly to our modern times, the feeling of people desperate to connect, whether it’s to another human or a memory. So many of us, in our haste to avoid discomfort, reach for the phone and begin scrolling when entering a strange room. But in that same room, a potential best friend may be looking for that same type of connection. We just have to be willing to look up from our screens to see it.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

The Curran presents “Dear Evan Hansen”
Book by Steven Levenson
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Choreographed by Danny Mefford
The Word: Wonderful performances from this tight cast of eight, which tells a complicated story of connection and grief.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running Time: Two hours, 55 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Through Dec. 30th
The Curran Theatre
445 Geary St., San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $25 – $325
For tickets, call (415) 358-1220 or visit www.sfcurran.com

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