By Colin Douglas
When this intensely moving and very topical musical opened on Broadway three years ago, one of Dear Evan Hansen‘s strongest selling points was that it was completely original.
Unlike almost every other show on the Great White Way that’s based upon a popular movie or book, Steven Levenson’s book and the music with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, was fresh and groundbreaking. This talented team had written a stunningly poignant play that truly spoke directly to today’s youth, the adult theatre audiences of tomorrow. As the winner of six Tony Awards in 2017, including the coveted accolade of Best Musical, this astounding show, like Hamilton, continues to draw new theatergoers and play to sold-out audiences. Now Chicagoans have the opportunity to experience this affecting, heartbreaking musical for themselves.
By now, the musical’s very well known, especially among younger theatergoers. But for the few individuals who aren’t familiar with the story, Evan Hansen is a painfully shy high school senior who suffers from a host of personal problems. Being woefully insecure, with a poor self image, Evan’s single mother, Heidi, somehow finds the money to send her son to a therapist, on a weekly basis. She works days as a nurse’s aid, while studying at night to become a paralegal. Thus, Evan’s mom has to strictly budget the little time she spends with her son.
In addition to medication, one of the exercises that the Evan’s therapist prescribes is writing positive, pep talk letters to himself each day. One of these letters gets stolen from the school printer by Connor Murphy, a hostile, friendless fellow student, who constantly enjoys bullying Evan. For a reason that’s never made clear, shortly after he mockingly signs his name on Evan Hansen’s cast, Connor dies by suicide. Evan’s purloined letter is found in the boy’s pocket, leading his bereft parents to conclude that Connor may have had at least one good friend in this world. In this letter, that Evan wrote to himself, he mentioned Zoe, Connor’s pretty younger sister, to whom Hansen is secretly attracted.
The Murphys invite Evan to their home in an attempt to learn more about the hidden social life between Hansen their deceased son. When questioned about their friendship, Evan tries to set the record straight; but the young man soon realizes that, by stretching the truth a little, he can ease the pain for Zoe and her parents. Quickly the lies snowball, other classmates latch onto the story and the fictional friendship between Evan and Connor goes viral. Suddenly Evan finds he’s achieved overnight popularity and he becomes buoyed by his new success. That’s when Evan’s life completely derails.
Directed with the same integrity and drive that he accomplished with Rent and the original Broadway production of this show, Michael Greif creates an aura of immediacy by bringing his cast downstage toward the audience. Much of Evan’s dialogue and songs break the fourth wall and are delivered directly to the audience. With this kind of staging, Evan’s story takes on a personal, confessional, conversational quality. To make this tale even more timely, the power of social media is represented through David Korins’ expressionistic scenic design. This is augmented by an overwhelming multitude of continually moving projections, representing computer images and smartphone text messages, all provided by Peter Nigrini. The inclusion of colorful, moody lighting, by Japhy Weideman and Nevin Steinberg’s spot-on sound design adds yet another layer to the overall effect.
Greif’s richly talented, Broadway calibre cast deserve every accolade they receive. Ben Levi Ross, a 20-year-old from Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, understudied the title role on Broadway. In this National Tour, Ross is Evan Hansen, a thin, earnest and likable young man who easily wins the hearts of every audience member. He convincingly plays this social outcast, the nerdy kid who just wants to belong and be liked. He expresses this disconnect with his world in “Waving Through a Window.” In the first act finale, Evan discovers a glimmer of hope, singing “You Will Be Found.” And later, when all the lying is finally exposed and everything falls apart, he admits to himself that “Words Fail.”
Heidi, Evan’s mom, is exquisitely played here by Broadway actress Jessica Phillips. This actress makes everything she says and does on the stage completely natural, totally earnest and believably candid, just like Ross. She creates a devoted mother who’s survived a lot and continues to move forward, sacrificing and doing everything for her son. Phillips brings every ounce of passion to her eleventh hour song to Evan, “So Big/So Small.”
Maggie McKenna is fresh, youthful and exquisitely natural as young teenager, Zoe. When audiences see her bright smile and hear her lovely, crystal clear voice, it’s easy to understand what attracted Evan to her. Fans of such Broadway musicals as Elf, Ragtime and Jekyll & Hyde will recognize the talented Christine Noll in the role of Cynthia Murphy. She creates a heartbreaking character, a mother who’s feels she failed her rebellious son and possibly drove him to suicide. She’s no longer able to connect with her daughter, Zoe, and finds her husband, Larry (beautifully played by Aaron Lazar) remote and unreachable. Lazar’s touching duet with Ross, “To Break in a Glove,” is guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of all the fathers in the audience. Together with Marrick Smith, as Connor, the Murphy family is represented by four gifted, very competent musical theatre actors.
Completing the cast and filling out the ensemble are Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe. Goldsmith is sensational as Evan’s “family friend,” the annoyingly manipulative Jared Kleinman, the mercenary school kid, whose computer skills enable him to become valuable to Evan. Koyabe makes her professional debut as Alana Beck, Evan’s geeky schoolmate who hitches her blind allegiance to Evan and his secret friendship with Connor Murphy. She helps him keep his buddy’s memory alive with the money-raising Connor Project. Together Goldsmith and Koyabe round out the cast of high school students and add vocal dimension to the company.
This show is a true masterpiece. It’s one of the most honest, emotionally moving and truly contemporary pieces of theatre since Next to Normal. It’s a play that really portrays the power of technology and the profound effects of social media on individuals. It’s also exciting that two of Broadway’s finest recent works, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, are both playing in Chicago at the same time. These are two completely original shows, neither adapted from a famous film nor based on the songbook of a popular singer. Both are shows that appeal to audiences of all ages, but will particularly speak to younger theatergoers. It’s so important to cultivate new audiences and this is a musical that will hook even the most reluctant patron. Promising to both entertain and release a floodgate of forgotten emotions, Dear Evan Hansen is sure to become a hit with audiences of all ages.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Dear Evan Hansen” through March 10 (and returning to Chicago in 2020 for an additional 12 weeks, July 7-September 27) at the Nederlander Theatre 24 Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Matthew Murphy.