Reviewed by Tom Lawler
Set the scene: DEAR EVAN HANSEN, a musical about a depressed high school student battling social anxiety, was a sensation with audiences and critics alike when it made its Broadway debut in 2016. It nabbed six Tonys — including for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score and most notably, a Best Actor for its star, Ben Platt, who continued his meteoric ascendancy after a starring role in BOOK OF MORMON on Broadway. Despite this wide acclaim, the combination of an unprecedented global pandemic and a widely-panned film adaptation (also starring Platt) ultimately felled this Millennial juggernaut. The Broadway production finally closed this September after nearly 1,700 performances. As you take your seat in Chicago’s ornate Nederlander theater and are greeted by a pre-curtain orchestra of social media feeds being projected on scrims across the stage (with all of their accompanying beeps, bloops and whistles), you have to wonder: Will this show still strike the same chords it did for audiences in the Before Times?
What’s it all about: For Evan Hansen, every day is a struggle against social anxiety and loneliness — quite the formula for misery. With the support of his therapist and the prodding of his caring if harried mother (Coleen Sexton), Evan begins writing letters to himself as a way to explore his feelings and boost his confidence. When one of these letters falls into the hands of a troubled classmate who kills himself — it sets off a series of escalating misunderstandings and deceptions between Evan and the deceased classmate’s family. With the ravenous, often fact-free appetites of social media, these deceptions go viral and transform the fortunes of Evan — until they don’t.
Stand-out performance: No question, it’s Chicago actor Anthony Norman in the starring role. Norman is on stage nearly every minute of this production and often asked to tap into grueling emotions. Beyond that, he displays an impressive vocal range as a singer – hitting both the low notes and the highs of a tenor (or perhaps even a countertenor, he really gets up there). When he’s not singing, Norman is equally up the task of injecting both some welcome comic relief and vulnerability with Zoe (a beguiling Alaina Anderson), a classmate he’s infatuated with — and also the sister of the deceased.
Also, check out: For a show with such dark themes, it’s worth pondering what made this show such a phenomenon in the first place. My hunch? It’s its extreme, aching emotionalism — especially as embodied by these songs [by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (LA LA LAND, THE GREATEST SHOWMAN)]. Being a teenager has never been easy but it’s likely also never been tougher to navigate — especially with the constant feed of social media that can amplify our bad feels. A highpoint of this sleek, high-tech production was “Waving Through the Window,” a song that deftly describes social media as windows into enticing social interactions we can see but can’t actually participate in — regardless of how many times we “tap, tap, tap on the glass” of our smartphones.
More of this, please: Ultimately, this show raises some interesting points about why we lie that may linger for you long after the curtain closes. Some lies we tell ourselves to make us feel better. Some lies we tell others to make them feel better. For the latter, could this really be more virtuous than telling them the truth if we believe that the truth will hurt them even more? Or is this usually just another self-serving lie we tell ourselves?
However: Evan reaps some immense personal benefits from claiming something that isn’t true. From politicians lying about their military service to athletes claiming recovery from fictitious medical diagnoses, these instances of stolen valor persist because they can be extremely lucrative — until these individuals are ultimately exposed and typically banished. Except Evan Hansen isn’t exposed for his deception. He’s ultimately forgiven by his deceased classmate’s family. How this sits with you will likely correspond with how you feel about lying.
Do this first: Looking for a quick dinner or cocktail before the show. Try the vendors at the nearby Urbanspace foodhall that has everything from souvlaki to sushi. (Pro tip: Don’t overlook the upstairs seating area.)
Do this after: A nearby drink at a Loop institution decked out for the holidays, you say? How about Miller’s Pub? Support and celebrate the establishments who’ve made it through some dark times.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission)
At James M. Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph
Songs: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book: Steven Levenson
Director: Michael Greif
Producer: Stacey Mindich
Tues-Fri at 7:30 p.m. (additional Wed matinee at 2:00 p.m. on December 21 and December 28)
Sat at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. (with no 8:00 p.m. performance on December 24
Sun at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. (with no performance on December 25).
Additional 2:00 p.m. shows on Friday, December 23 and Friday, December 30.
Thru December 30
Buy tickets at BroadwayInChicago.com