‘Dear Evan Hansen’ at the Curran in San Francisco ushers Broadway into the digital age

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How many likes did I get? Did he see my story yet? Why didn’t she retweet me?

In today’s digital world, the virality of social media has changed the way teenagers interact with each other — gone are the days of passing notes in class and catching up during passing period. Now we’re just one like, swipe or Snapchat away from connecting with our classmates. But what happens when we can’t seem to connect beyond that?

Teenage angst has been well-documented in movies, television and theater, but nothing captures its nuances in the era of social media quite like the hit Broadway show “Dear Evan Hansen.” Fresh off of its six Tony Awards last year — including one for Best Musical — the musical’s first national tour has made its way to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre.

“Dear Evan Hansen,” which opened on Broadway in 2016, chronicles socially anxious high schooler Evan Hansen as he finds himself inadvertently fabricating a friendship with Connor Murphy, a classmate who committed suicide. What begins as a miscommunication slowly escalates as Evan finds himself forging real connections with his peers and Connor’s family. Part coming-of-age story, part family drama and part social commentary, the musical perfectly encapsulates the intersection of grief, adolescence and our digital world.

From the set design alone, it is clear that even the show’s world is immersed in the cybersphere. Laden with large screens that are quick to display real and fictional posts from various social media sites, the set ensures that the audience remains connected to the online world even after viewers silence their phones. When Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross) gives his unexpectedly inspirational speech at the memorial of Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), footage of his fictional speech and the online reactions to it permeate the screens. It’s a materialization of the digital space, a tangible portrayal of what it’s like to go “viral” on the internet.

Despite the perpetual presence of the digital landscape, the show finds a personal connection to the audience through its intimate cast and poignant songs. Although the first act does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the show’s pathos, the emotional journey of the Hansens and the Murphys as they endure the aftermath of Connor’s suicide is one that resonates with everyone.

Although the premise may suggest that the show is geared toward a millennial audience, the duality of “Dear Evan Hansen” allows it to connect to both younger and older viewers. By telling both the coming-of-age story of a boy tired of being on the outside and the tale of a family dealing with the death of a loved one, the musical explores the shared underlying themes of grief, family and human connection that audiences of all ages can relate to. The opening number, “Anybody Have a Map?” alone perfectly frames teenage angst through the lens of mothers navigating their children’s dreaded teenage years. This allows the audience to empathize with either the Hansen and Murphy children, who feel lost in the world, or their parents, who can’t seem to comprehend the difficulties their youths face.

Even with the buzzy scenic and lighting design and gut-wrenching songs, it is the cast’s performance that drives the heart of the show. Ben Levi Ross stands out in his portrayal of Evan Hansen. Not only does he carry song after song after song — from “Waving Through a Window” to “For Forever” to “Words Fail” — with flawless emotional beats each time, but he has perfected the little mannerisms of the title character so well that the social quirks seem instinctive as he performs.

Capturing the zeitgeist of today’s social media culture, “Dear Evan Hansen” is the epitome of a new era of Broadway, one exploring modern themes and addressing topics eerily relevant to our technologically-driven era. Its cult-like following is well-deserved, with many of its numbers becoming breakout anthems relating the struggle of feeling like an outsider and finding assurances that #youwillbefound. “Dear Evan Hansen” has positioned itself as a new Broadway staple, guaranteed to inspire generations to come.

Contact Julie Lim at [email protected].