While it’s obviously never been easy to be a teenager, adolescence is especially treacherous terrain today, thanks to the power of social media to exponentially amplify the inevitable missteps of youth.
In the emotionally potent “Dear Evan Hansen,’’ directed by Michael Greif at the Citizens Bank Opera House, large vertical screens aglow with images or text are a constant, looming presence. As the socially insecure title character becomes enmeshed in an Internet-accelerated crisis of his own making, those ever-present screens underscore how much digital technology influences and even defines high school behavior. Even the dialogue in “Dear Evan Hansen’’ is often a representation not of spoken conversations but of e-mail exchanges.
But the most important thing this Tony-winning musical gets right about teenagers is their need to matter, to be seen — not virtually, but actually, in, you know, real life.
That’s what makes this musical special, and it’s why “Dear Evan Hansen’’ feels both of-our-moment and built to last. That’s what rescues “Dear Evan Hansen’’ — barely, at times — from mawkishness. That’s likely what explained the higher-than-usual number of young people in the Opera House at Thursday night’s performance, and it’s what, I suspect, makes the show’s moving Act One closer, “You Will Be Found,’’ speak to them on a profound level.
Evan feels invisible, and they just might, too. His desperate desire to not feel invisible is what causes Evan to be drawn into an act of deception that leads to bigger and bigger deceptions.
As Evan, Ben Levi Ross delivers a sharply drawn portrait that captures the 17-year-old’s combination of on-edge intensity and nearly paralyzing awkwardness. Evan’s conversational style amounts to: Blurt out, apologize, repeat. So he hopelessly fumbles a conversation with Zoe Murphy, the girl he has a secret crush on. She is portrayed by the luminous Maggie McKenna, who sings so beautifully you wish she had more musical numbers. McKenna reaches into the depths of a character who is much more complicated than Evan’s idealized view of her.
Book writer Steven Levenson has devised an intricate, savvy plot, and the composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have created a host of heartfelt songs that propel Levenson’s narrative forward while illuminating everything from a mother’s struggle with the bewildering challenge of parenting (“Anybody Have a Map?’’) to an outsider’s longing to belong (“Waving Through a Window’’) to the simple bond that baseball, that eternal game, can help to forge between a (surrogate) father and a (surrogate) son (“To Break in a Glove’’).
Even before Evan’s entire existence begins spiraling wildly out of control, Ross wrenchingly conveys the sense that the boy is lost and adrift, wounded in ways that neither his anti-anxiety medication nor his overburdened mother, Heidi (a persuasively anguished Jessica Phillips) can fix. On the instruction of his therapist, Evan writes notes to himself — part confessional, part pep talk — that begin with the salutation “Dear Evan Hansen.’’
When one such note is found in the possession of Zoe’s troubled brother, Connor (Marrick Smith) after he has committed suicide, Connor’s parents, Larry (Aaron Lazar) and Cynthia (Christiane Noll) assume that he and Evan were friends. They weren’t, but Evan sees a chance to draw closer to Zoe — and fulfill some of the needs unmet in his own family life.
Matters escalate greatly from there, with the assistance of a snarky classmate, Jared (Jared Goldsmith) — who knows the truth of Evan’s non-friendship with the late Connor — and the hyperactive Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), who is eager to exploit the performative possibilities of grief, however unearned. Soon, the fictional friendship between Evan and Connor (and the very real death of the latter) has become an Internet cause celebre and fund-raising effort: The Connor Project.
“Dear Evan Hansen’’ illustrates viral culture at its most frenzied, capricious, and narcissistic: a like-share-repost-forward echo chamber of “tributes’’ to the dead youth that eventually turns ugly, a hall of mirrors that obliterates the line between private and public. But for all the big subjects that undergird this musical — mental health, family, community, disconnectedness in an era of connectivity, tragedy as a route to Internet celebrity — “Dear Evan Hansen’’ is really a small-scale story that, like all the stories that endure, is fundamentally about the human heart.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Book by Steven Levenson. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul.
Directed by Michael Greif.
Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston. Through Aug. 4. Tickets start at $49.50. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin