I know some people might wonder about the value of seeing “Dear Evan Hansen” more than once, especially since it came through Los Angeles in 2018. The original production won six 2017 Tony Awards, including Best Musical and went on to win a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album. Last year’s cinematic adaptation, didn’t do well although it starred Ben Platt who originally starred in the Broadway production, winning Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. Yet I think there’s value in each different production and this one, currently at the Ahmanson made me think of other aspects of high school and my experience with a friend’s suicide.
The first Ahmanson production that I saw had Santa Monica-born and raised Ben Levi Ross in the lead role. Yet it’s Platt’s performance and the cast of the 2021 film that are freshest in my mind. In my review of the film, I deal with the issue of age, but here, I want to deal with the issue of size. As someone who is below the national average for adult women but just about the right height for a 12-year-old girl, I know something about issues of height.
“Dear Evan Hansen” tells the story of the titular character (played by Anthony Norman at the current Ahmanson production). He’s socially awkward, with extreme social anxiety. His therapist has recommended that he write himself a pep-talk letter each day. He recently fell from a tree and broke his arm so his mother Heidi Hansen (Coleen Sexton) suggests he has people to sign his cast. On this particular day, Evan is visiting his therapist and must print out his letter. He does so at his high school computer lab. The only other person in the lab is another social misfit, Connor Murphy (Nikhil Saboo). Connor, who just earlier in the day misunderstood Evan’s intentions and, taking offense, assaulted him. Now, Connor is the first person to sign Evan’s cast, but soon after, finding Evan’s therapeutic letter, is angered and leaves, taking the printed letter.
Three days later, Evan is called to the principal’s office where, for the first time, he meets Connor’s parents, Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Lili Thomas). The couple mistakenly believe that the letter was Connor’s suicide note and Evan, although he tries, is unable to put forward the truth. Seeing Connor’s name prominently written on Evan’s cast, they believe that Evan was Connor’s only friend. To complicate matters, Evan has a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe.
Ben Levi Ross (from the 2018 Ahmanson production) is, according to my internet search, about 5-foot-7. Ben Platt (who originated the role and plays it in the film) has stated he is a shade over 5-foot-9. The average height for US citizens is 5-foot-9. (The average height for women is 5-foot-4.) Amanda Stenberg who played Alana Beck in the film is 5-foot-3. Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Zoe in the film, is 5-foot-2. Colton Ryan , who plays Connor, is 5-foot-8.
I’ve always been on the petite size, usually the shortest and smallest person in my class. That means I didn’t have to adjust much to my life as a short adult and even decades after I graduated from high school, I still shop in the children’s section. The adult section is just more frustration and time than I care to spend any more. During my time in high school, I saw three different competitions that pitted the first year male students against the senior male students. What a different three years can make for some. Among the first group, I saw a football player who as a senior had massive shoulders and looked like a body builder. Yet in elementary school, he had been one of the shortest and smallest boys in his class. How the world must have changed for him and I wondered how that affected his personality and how he changed. But I also reflected that not everyone adjusts or adapts to change.
As a petite person, I am an easy target for bullies. I’ve seen how the bullying has different effects upon different petite people and that differs between girls and boys. A petite girl might be cute, but is a petite boy cute? I remember that in the same year as the football player was an effortless genius. He was of normal height, but he was bullied with people throwing liquids at him and pushing him around. Yet, he was kind to me in the non-academic class we shared. I often found allies or big brothers among men and boys who were years ahead of me. Not everyone did. I also used my attitude as protection, but I also realize that some of my approaches would be threatening in someone much bigger, particularly in a larger man.
Yet watching Nikhil Saboo as Connor, I thought that about what it must be like for someone who was probably a normal-sized kid to suddenly be a hulking man-child. Instead of seeming like a harmless, inarticulate nobody, sputtering responses, this Connor is threatening and even belligerent. Likewise, the size differential between Connor and this Evan makes a different type of threat or threat potential than the one in the film where the man who played Evan was about the same size as the man who played Connor and even an inch taller, with his curly hair, giving Platt additional height. In the film Stenberg and Dever are petite women, particularly in comparison to Platt. In this production, the women playing the girls are of more substantial build and that also informs how they are portrayed and how we interpret them. Director Michael Grief astutely handles all these sizable problems well and allows us adequate time to feel the emotions.
“Dear Evan Hansen” may bring back unhappy memories of high school, but I tried to think of positive things that happened. The musical is based on a real experience for the show’s lyricist, Benj Pasek. A high school classmate died from a drug overdose and Pasek saw people who pretended to be friends with the deceased. For myself, I was a friend of a person who committed suicide while in grad school and seeing the musical again, made me reflect further on her death and how I missed her even decades later. The musical (music and lyrics by Pasek and Justin Paul with book by Steven Levenson) still moves me and the music is effective. The musical doesn’t offer any solutions to social anxiety–that might be a tall order for a musical, but it does emphasize that things will get better and have suicides leave immense emotional wreckage behind.
“Dear Evan Hansen” continues at the Ahmanson until 31 July 2022. For tickets and more info, visit CenterTheatreGroup.org.