Review: “Dear Evan Hansen”

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen and Jessica Phillips as Heidi Hansen (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

RECOMMENDED

Where: James M. Nederlander
Theatre (formerly the Oriental), 24 W. Randolph St.
When: through March 10, returning July 7-Sept. 27
Tickets: $85-$175
Contact: www.BroadwayInChicago.com

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Dear Evan Hansen” is an ideal show for the internet age, and the national touring production at the newly renamed Nederlander Theatre (formerly the Oriental) is well worth seeing.

Winner of six Tony Awards and still playing on Broadway, the musical with a book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul combines timeless themes of teen angst and parental anguish with an oh-so-timely look at the power and pitfalls of social media. It also explores feelings of isolation and the desire for connection in an era when people ostensibly are more connected than ever by computers, cell phones and other devices.

Over two acts and two-and-a-half hours, the rather traditionally structured story tracks the rise and fall and recovery of the title character, a high-school student so painfully shy he doesn’t have any friends and can barely manage to talk to anyone, especially the girl he has a crush on. He and his mother can’t communicate, either, an inability poignantly illuminated in the opening song “Anybody Have a Map?” It’s one of a baker’s dozen of narrative-furthering numbers, several of them heart-wrenching ballads, that helped win the original cast album a Grammy Award. Among the others: “Waving Through a Window,” “If I Could Tell Her,” “Disappear,” “You Will Be Found” and “Words Fail.”

That opener lamenting the lack of a guide for raising children actually is a duet between Evan’s (Ben Levi Ross) mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), and Cynthia Murphy (Christiane Noll), whose troubled drug-abusing son Connor (Marrick Smith) is the catalyst for the action, and whose daughter, Zoe (Maggie McKenna), is the girl Evan pines for.

Ironically, the depressed Evan and Connor have more in common than either would admit, but an act of aggression followed by a misunderstanding fueled by a lie sparks a situation the spirals out of control. Assigned by his therapist to write encouraging letters to himself that begin “Dear Evan Hansen…,” the unhappy adolescent writes one about how it hasn’t been an amazing day and only Zoe keeps him going. He prints it out in the computer lab, and Connor, whose only previous contact has been to knock him down, enters. Bullying Evan, he grabs the letter and derisively scrawls “Connor” across the cast Evan has on his arm as the result of falling from a tree.

When Connor commits suicide soon after, the letter is found in his pocket, and his parents think he wrote it to Evan. Surprised and happy their son had a friend, they pump Evan for information about the child they couldn’t get through to.

After briefly trying to tell the truth, Evan goes with the flow, convincing himself that he’s bringing comfort to grieving parents and helping them draw closer together since they’ve been having problems. But he’s also gaining a surrogate family (his mother is rarely at home, and his father left years ago) and, more importantly, developing a relationship with Zoe, who is at first skeptical about the brother who was always horrible to her, but Evan says he loved her.

Like most lies, Evan’s demands to be fed. He fabricates a moving tale of a perfect afternoon he and Connor spent in a long-closed apple orchard that once was important to the Murphy family. And Evan’s “family friend” (as opposed to a real friend) Jared (Jared Goldsmith) volunteers to create a series of fake emails showing what good buddies Evan and Connor were.

These end up all over the internet, thanks partly to Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), a bossy loner who dedicates herself to keeping Connor’s memory alive. After Evan suggests “the Connor Project” to do this and gives a memorial speech that goes viral, she makes herself vice-president and, along with Jared, they start raising money to reopen the apple orchard.

Things start to unravel when Heidi meets the Murphys and sees how they are treating her son and why. She and Evan have a big fight and, as his guilt escalates, Alana accuses him of not being devoted enough to Connor, in fact, of not really being his friend.

Pushed to the wall, Evan arguably makes his worst mistake, and when the truth comes out, the results are devastating – softened only by the suggestion that some good can come even from this disaster.

I didn’t see Ben Platt’s star turn as Evan on Broadway, but Levi Ross does a terrific job of showing us a vulnerable teenager slowly emerging from his shell, finding his voice, and navigating an emotionally fraught minefield. His voice mostly rises to the occasion, and when it cracks, it seems to be in the right places.

The rest of the ensemble, directed by Michael Greif, is strong, but Goldsmith’s Jared tends to be too cartoonish, as does Koyabe’s Alana. At the other end of the spectrum is Aaron Lazar as Larry Murphy; I  found his understated performance as a grieving father affecting. McKenna has some lovely moments as Zoe, and both mothers are most convincing, except that their singing voices become very shrill in the upper registers.

David Korins’ scenic design and Peter Nigrini’s projections (of social media, natch) are everything they should be, as are Emily Rebholz’s character-defining costumes. The sound design and music supervision could use some fine-tuning; the small band, on a raised platform on one side of the stage, sometimes seems to be in competition with the singers.