Wednesday, February 27, 2019

In His Own Write: 'Dear Evan Hansen' Provides a Powerful Musical Perspective on Teenage Pressures Amid Today's Technology -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Dear Evan Hansen
a musical
National Tour
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 10

Dear Evan Hansen is a great musical, one that satisfies in the moment, contains several songs worth revisiting and even advances the musical theater genre.

Rent, Wicked and Billy Elliot are antecedents that come to mind as musicals that feature rock music and/or focus on youthful identity, individuality and insecurity, while Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Fun Home are even more acute parallels in terms of setting dramatic narratives to music without conventional Broadway tropes.

But Dear Evan Hansen, which was first staged publicly in 2015 and hit Broadway in late-2016--winning Best Musical and five other Tony Awards the following June--feels sleekly contemporary, given its heavy interpolation of social media and the idea of things "going viral."

Obviously, any first-rate musical has to have many moving parts congeal into an engaging and exciting whole, but this show really has pieces that could have felt quite wrong if they didn't come together just right.


Regarding Dear Evan Hansen's subject matter, what I will share seems rather commonly divulged by critics and presumably known by audiences coming in, but especially if you already have tickets or intend to get them--a Chicago return has already been booked for Summer 2020 given that this run is essentially sold out--you may prefer to know as little as possible.

If so, please return here after seeing the show.

But while still trying to be rather circumspect, here goes:

Evan Hansen (played on tour most nights by Ben Levi Ross, who I found to be terrific) is an awkward and unpopular high school senior who sports a cast on an arm he broke over the summer. He has also been seeing a therapist, at whose unseen behest he writes self-affirmation letters--e.g. "Dear Evan Hansen, it's been a good day..."--encouraged by his loving but hectic single mom, Heidi (Jessica Phillips).

As revealed in one of the letters as the show opens, he has a crush on a pretty junior named Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna), whose temperamental senior brother Connor (Marrick Smith) happens to get hold of Evan's letter before he takes his own life.

Because the letter was found on Connor, his crushed parents, Larry and Cynthia Murphy (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll), presume he had written it to Evan, who, when asked, is too flummoxed to deny this and even creates a story about him and Connor being secretive friends.

Evan continues this deception with the aid of a friend named Jared (Jared Goldsmith) and--unwittingly--another classmate, Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), which serves to endear him to Larry & Cynthia and enables him to get close to Zoe.

I won't tell you any more about the narrative nor how it unwinds in Act 2, but even in long having Spotifamilarized myself with the music, I--who managed to be unpopular high school without indulging any shameful farces--wondered how well I might stomach Evan's dishonesty.

That I remained largely empathetic is a credit not only the fine performance by Ross, but--very much in support of each other--the dexterity of Steven Levenson's script, Michael Greif's direction (he also notably helmed Rent and Next to Normal) and the score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who are both credited with music & lyrics.

Pasek & Paul have had a fantastic run, responsible for the stellar A Christmas Story: The Musical and composing the films La La Land and The Greatest Showman, and Dear Evan Hansen is filled with savvy, often punchy songs including "Anybody Have a Map?" (shrewdly about the challenges of parenting), "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," "Sincerely, Me," "Disappear," "Only Us" and the empowering "You Will Be Found."

That the music is so good doesn't allow the questionable pathos of the story to ever sap the show's strong tonality, and Greif's direction ensures scenes and music segue seamlessly, without over-sentimentalizing things.

As I alluded above, the various parts really weave together well.

Including the set design by David Korins, with its superb digital representation of social media and the way it can mushroom.

All that said--and @@@@@ well-merited--the first acts feels considerably stronger than the second, both musically and narratively.

The whole thing is fresh and powerful enough to make for a terrific night of theater, but if one has qualms about Evan's character--and to what degree he ever faces the music--well, you likely wouldn't be the first to have such thoughts.

But one more thing worth championing about Dear Evan Hansen is that it's a rather rare new musical with a story written fresh for the stage. In other words, it's not based on a movie or a book and it isn't a jukebox musical wrapping around famous songs.

So especially given how the whole affair intertwines excellently, ceding some dramatic license seems fair; in large part this is a musical that really could be considered a compelling drama.

It was also great to see so many teens helping to fill the newly re-christened James M. Nederlander Theatre--formerly the Oriental--and as long as they're informed of theater ettiquette (phones all the way off, no talking, etc.), any show bring youthful vitality to the Broadway idiom feels particularly "Dear" to me. 

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