‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Packs Sold-Out Crowds Into Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District has been filled to capacity on a nightly basis this week as the touring production of Broadway’s most recent smash has made its way to the Steel City.

The entire six-day Pittsburgh run for “Dear Evan Hansen” — which kicked off this past Tuesday and wraps up this Sunday — quickly sold out long ago, and tickets immediately went on sale through the web’s secondary markets for outrageous prices (which, in some people’s opinion, is basically the electronic version of ticket scalping and should be outlawed).

But that’s the drama that comes with life in this technologically wired day and age, and in a way, that’s part of what makes “Dear Evan Hansen” so relatable to viewers of all ages today — people trying to navigate their way through their “real” and “in-person” lives while plugged into and tossed around by the ever-changing traffic patterns of the information superhighway.

The Broadway success of “Dear Evan Hansen” has fans of musical theater calling it the biggest thing since “Hamilton.” It made its Broadway debut in 2016 and has since won six Tony Awards — including the award for Best Musical in 2017 — as well as a Grammy award in 2018 for Best Musical Theater Album and a slew of critical acclaim and other accolades.

In other words, “Dear Evan Hansen” is trending.

One thing that makes “Dear Evan Hansen” stand out from a lot of other musicals staged today is the setting — of today … here and now. It’s not a period piece or a fantasy. It’s one of the most contemporary productions you can find in 2019, and it tackles tough issues of today.

With a book by Tony-winner Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Grammy, Tony and Academy Award-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land,” “The Greatest Showman”) and directed by Tony nominee Michael Greif (“Rent”), “Dear Evan Hansen” is described by its creative team as “a contemporary musical about life and the way we live it.”

Story-wise, the material is intensely raw and gripping. It pulls the curtain back unapologetically on a variety of stark topics: teen depression and suicide, mental health, parental stress, family communication barriers, social anxiety, social climbing, struggles to find your identity and to fit in among your peers, as well as the challenges of maintaining real relationships in a world consumed and often veiled by relentless screen time.

Much of the story delivered by “Dear Evan Hansen” seems to intentionally hit audience members close to home in a way that’s not alway comfortable, whether you’re a teenager or a parent. It’s probably safe to say the musical is probably viewed very differently by each audience member, as they may or may not relate more to the struggles of a particular character on stage. Personal perspective plays a huge role at this show, for sure.

The main character of Evan Hansen — brought to life masterfully on the tour by Ben Levi Ross –is a misfit with a broken arm who is being raised by a hard-working single mom. He’s an awkward teenager who basically has no friends and is trying to find a silver lining in life.

Evan has a brief run-in with another sad loner, Connor, who ends up being the only soul to sign the cast on Evan’s broken arm. Soon afterward, Connor commits suicide and in his possession at the time of his death is a print-out of a self-affirmation letter written by Evan to himself. This leads Connor’s family to believe Evan and Connor were friends, and a lie intended to help comfort a grieving family snowballs into a web of lies that eventually turns Evan undeservingly into an celebrated internet sensation.

Despite the gravity of the subject matter, the first act of “Dear Evan Hansen” is delicately balanced by humor, great character development, (very catchy) award-winning show tunes and powerful some visual presentations.

The stage production itself is second to none. Even as theater-goers take their seats before the show, an array of semi-transparent, vertical video screens on stage are littered with bits of electronic information displayed like social media news feeds. We’ll just say it’s clever how — at the start of the first and second acts — the audience is alerted to the fact that the show is about to begin or resume.

Stage lighting and sound are state-of-the-art, and the live orchestra interestingly is placed not in the orchestra pit but instead on an elevated platform on the left side of the stage behind the veil of busy video screens.

Although the acclaim has been full-tilt on the positive side, not all critiques of “Dear Evan Hansen” have been glowing. The casts’ performances, eye-popping stage production and intense story are on their own worthy of a recommendation to go check out “Dear Evan Hansen,” but it’s not for everyone. Some critics view Evan as a sad little liar who doesn’t deserve sympathy and is the underdog no one should rally behind.

The story gets very heavy to the point where, in the second act, that balance of intensity laced with humor dwindles into more abrasive drama that’s not as fun. It’s kind of like the “Harry Potter” series in which the early books offer mostly fun adventures and wacky characters, but things get dark in later books to the point where the magical world loses some of its magic, and it’s just not fun anymore.

The musical is touted by many as a “must see” for teens and their parents — and it has likely opened up a lot of important dialogue about these tough issues. But there is occasional use of harsh language, and there are segments where family members just yell at and over each other. With fun moments fleeting as the plot thickens, it gets almost depressing in parts, and as it finally emerges back to a hopeful place, your newfound lack of empathy for the characters almost makes the story and the songs seem “sappy,” as at least one teen described it on Pittsburgh’s opening night.

Some of the musical crescendos got very loud, but with songs like “Disappear,” “Waving Through a Window,” “You Will Be Found” and others in its arsenal, “Dear Evan Hansen” wants its audiences to hold on and don’t let go.

Whether you end up embracing “Dear Evan Hanson” and loving it like most people, or if you end up being rubbed the wrong way by it, for theater lovers it’s worth a night out to see it, take it in and find out how it hits you –that is if you can actually get a ticket!

Although the Pittsburgh shows are sold out, “Dear Evan Hansen” has a limited amount of deeply discounted tickets for each show available through digital lottery. Check out the official “Dear Evan Hansen” social media pages for details.

Shows continue at Heinz Hall this weekend with a show tonight, followed by matinee and evening shows both Saturday and Sunday.

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