It has been almost exactly four years since “Dear Evan Hansen” celebrated its official birth at Arena Stage, and who knew then the triumphs it would rack up on its way back to the nation’s capital? Having been showered with Tonys and set in motion major careers — stars Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones, songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and playwright Steven Levenson — the show returns to Washington, in a sold-out five-week run at the Kennedy Center.
This touring version, directed, like the original Broadway incarnation, by Michael Greif, upholds the exemplary standards established by the musical at Arena back in the summer of 2015. Which is to say, the music and script still fuse marvelously in the account of the big lie in which introverted Evan Hansen envelops himself and the vulnerable people around him.
The touring Evan, Ben Levi Ross, possessed of a rewardingly supple voice and wounded mien of the kid picked last in gym class, proves a worthy inheritor of the role created by Platt. Well, created may not quite describe Platt’s achievement. He wrenched Evan from the belly of some tormented beast, and laid bare emotions that were at times painful to watch. Will anyone so rawly expose Evan’s desperation, self-loathing and ultimate contrition ever again?
In the Eisenhower Theater — where on Wednesday the actors still seemed to be adjusting to the acoustic demands of the space — Ross makes for an appealing leading man. With fine support from Jessica Phillips, as Evan’s hapless mother, and Maggie McKenna as the girl he longs to impress, Ross builds an Evan with whom we come to empathize deeply. (In this age in which we’ve all come to see so clearly the corrosive effects of public mendacity, persuading us to open our hearts to a liar is no small feat.) Ross’s performance achieves the requisite apotheosis in Evan’s confessional second-act aria, “Words Fail,” a song that will have you near tears — if you have any heart at all.
Traversing the terrain of teenage loneliness, a condition exacerbated by the acidity of social media, “Dear Evan Hansen” is about finding the inner resources to overcome one’s anxieties and insecurities, and grow. That Evan does everything wrong — particularly, in the repulsive invention of a history with a dead student that increases his visibility and popularity at school — does not disqualify him as a winning character. Some observers argue that Levenson, Pasek and Paul have not adequately punished Evan for his transgressions. But on closer inspection, “Dear Evan Hansen” makes plain that any tougher retribution by the authors would be overkill. For no one punishes Evan more than Evan himself.
Pasek and Paul, in concert with sound designer Nevin Steinberg and an eight-member orchestra conducted by Alex Harrington, provide a jaunty audioscape. The tones of the pop songs vary from sardonic (“Sincerely, Me”) to wistful (“For Forever”) to elegiac (“So Big/So Small”). They’re all exceedingly well-sung, with superior contributions by Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar as the dead boy’s bewildered parents and Jared Goldsmith, Marrick Smith and Phoebe Koyabe as Evan’s high school peers.
Four years into the story of “Dear Evan Hansen,” you’re reminded in Peter Nigrini’s eye-filling projections, framed by lighting designer Japhy Weideman on David Korins’s spare, kinetic set, how au courant is its depiction of Instagram and Twitter. They’re akin to pot-stirring dark forces in the musical, by turns amplifying Evan’s lies, engendering jealousies and heaping abuse unfairly on innocent targets. It is, in a sense, the too-easily manipulated digital mob that is the underrecognized villain of the piece.
And four years into my own relationship with “Dear Evan Hansen,” I have a bone to pick with its creators. Well, not a bone so much as a challenge : Write another show for the stage. Create the Broadway archive for the future. Please don’t leave us to scavenge in the cellars of old record stores and rock stars’ homes for the music of Broadway musicals.
Dear Evan Hansen, book by Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Orchestrations, Alex Lacamoire; choreography, Danny Mefford; sets, David Korins; projections, Peter Nigrini; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Nevin Steinberg. With Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. $79-$175. Through Sept. 8 at Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.