“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
That isn’t a quote from the six-time Tony Award-winning musical "Dear Evan Hansen," the first Broadway in Chicago show to play at the newly renamed James M. Nederlander Theatre – it’s actually from Dr. Seuss – but it could be.
The title character, Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross), is a high school senior who would love to fit in, have friends, and have the guts to approach Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna), the girl of his dreams, but as the show begins, it’s clear that he’s struck out on all three fronts. The doctor he’s seeing for his issues has even given him homework: write a letter to himself and make it as positive as possible (e.g., “today’s going to be an amazing day” and “be true to yourself”).
On the first day of the new school year, Evan has a horrible day. Evan’s divorced mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), promises to take him to see his doctor, but has to cancel at the last minute; she’s also more interested in Evan’s life – but less available in general – than Evan would like. Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith), a “family friend” whose computer abilities will prove helpful later, says that Evan must have broken his arm in an embarrassing way.
Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), a troubled, foul-mouthed bully who is also the older brother of Zoe, pushes Evan down, but is the only one later willing to write his name on Evan’s cast.
When a printout of Evan’s letter to himself is misinterpreted and seized by Connor, and later found by Connor’s parents (Christiane Noll, Aaron Lazar) after their son commits suicide, the letter is again misunderstood. It now appears to be a suicide note that indicates a close friendship existed between Connor and Evan, with the solitary name on Evan’s cast providing further evidence.
The Murphys’ desperation for some understanding of who their son truly was leads Evan to keep quiet about the true author of the letter and to gradually embellish the totally fictional details of his friendship. With the addition of social media and peer pressure (especially from classmate Alana Beck [Phoebe Koyabe]), along with Evan befriending the entire Murphy family – including Zoe – the lies continue to grow.
And that’s just in the first 25 minutes or so of this roughly 2½ hour show (plus intermission).
"Dear Evan Hansen" won 2017 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score, and even though Best Actor in a Leading Role Ben Platt isn’t in this touring company, the Chicago production is still well worth seeing if you can snatch up a highly-sought-after ticket. Major pluses include:
The storyline is engrossing, especially if you’ve ever wanted to fit in or stand out.
The music gives the actors a chance to spotlight the emotions and complicated relationships they have with each other (e.g., “To Break in a Glove,” in which Connor’s father relates to Evan [and vice versa] in the kind of father-son dynamic they wish they’d experienced).
The social media images projected on multiple background flats, occasional strobe lighting effects, and clamoring recorded voices do an excellent job of representing the pressures facing young people in 2019.
The performance by Phillips as Evan’s struggling mother is Jefferson Award-worthy. Her song, “So Big/So Small” late in Act II, had emotions so palpable that the audience could have heard not just a pin drop, but many teardrops.
The only area of improvement I’d hope to see is a better balance, especially in songs early in Act I, between the orchestra (suspended above the stage) and the singers. We occasionally had to struggle to hear the lyrics.
If you can’t see this show in its current run (March 10 is the final performance), take heart: a longer, 12-week stay for Dear Evan Hansen is already planned for Chicago in the summer of 2020.
Finally, it’s important to note that while we never see the suicide of Connor, this is a serious – although occasionally humorous and romantic – musical. I’d say it’s most appropriate for those 13 or older; if you take a teenage son or daughter, be prepared that you’ll both want to talk about this show long after you see it. Dear Evan Hansen is a very powerful, impressive, contemporary, realistic, standout show.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players (TSP) and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in over 30 plays, musicals, and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include 42nd Street, Once Upon a Mattress, On Golden Pond, 9 to 5: The Musical, A Christmas Carol (2014, 2016), and Into the Woods.