Heartfelt 'Dear Evan Hansen' strikes emotional chords in Chicago debut
"Dear Evan Hansen" - ★ ★ ★ ★
In a genre where spectacle often wins out over substance, "Dear Evan Hansen" is a rarity -- a Broadway musical with a small cast and a massive heart.
The musical about a lonely teenage boy won six 2017 Tony Awards, and the extraordinary touring version now in Chicago shows why: The intimate tuner is raw, real and utterly riveting.
The downside? It's only in town until March 10, though a return July 7, 2020, has already been announced.
We first meet teen Evan (the wonderful Ben Levi Ross) alone in his room, wearing a white arm cast no one has signed. He has no real friends at school, and his harried but devoted single mom (Jessica Phillips) isn't around as much as he'd like. His therapist urges him to write letters to himself, personal pep talks designed to boost his confidence. But a letter he writes -- which includes mentions of Zoe Murphy, a girl he idolizes -- falls into the hands of her troubled brother, Connor (Marrick Smith).
Connor is the teen "freak" to Evan's geek -- an outcast with a drug problem and no more friends than Evan. When Connor takes his own life, his parents (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll) find the letter addressed to Evan, mistake it for their son's suicide note and assume that the boys were close.
At first, Evan tries to deny it. But in a fateful move born of awkwardness and fueled by his misguided desire to please, Evan lies to Zoe (Maggie McKenna) and her parents, making up stories -- and later backing them up with fake emails -- of the bond the two boys shared.
Suddenly, outsider Evan is the center of attention. And as he builds a community around honoring Connor, and grows closer to the Murphys, the consequences of his lies threaten to crash down around him.
With music by composer/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul ("La La Land," "The Greatest Showman") and a book by Steven Levenson, "Dear Evan Hansen" tells a powerful story, made all the more relevant by Peter Nigrini's insistent projections. Flashing in multiple spots on the stage, they depict various forms of social media bombarding Evan and his classmates. In some ways, the posts connect the teens, but more often they alienate -- spreading untruths, amplifying the stakes and opening up a grieving family to further pain.
The focus on social media is just one of the ways "Dear Evan Hansen" manages to so accurately depict today's teens. The show also does justice to its adults. There are no villains, just loving parents trying to do their best and knowing -- as Phillips poignantly points out in "So Big/So Small" -- that they're destined to "come up short a million different ways."
Indeed, that touching song may be the musical's most memorable. And Phillips, in a nuanced and powerful performance, reflects a mother struggling as her son increasingly shuts her out.
As Evan, Ben Levi Ross mesmerizes, more so perhaps for parents in the audience who have raised teens. His movements and mannerisms -- even the way his fingers flutter -- speak volumes about Evan's insecurities.
McKenna, meanwhile, delights as the tough yet vulnerable Zoe, who accurately captures the resentment of a sibling overshadowed by her needier brother. Her part in the pain-filled "Requiem" commands the stage.
Under director Michael Greif, all the cast members impress, including Phoebe Koyabe as attention-seeking overachiever Alana Beck. She helps turn the Murphy family's tragedy into an online crusade, with implications that leave no one untouched.
In the end, it's just one more way that "Dear Evan Hansen" feels achingly authentic.
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Location: The James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through March 10. Also 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17
Running time: About 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Paid parking lots
Rating: For high school and older; contains mature subject matter and strong language