Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Dear Evan Hansen
National Tour
Review by John Olson


Ben Levi Ross, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll,
and Maggie McKenna

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Whether it's boredom with musicals based on hit movies or "behind-the-scenes" pop rock star bios, or just a hunger for stories that speak to issues of American life in this particularly perplexing time, Dear Evan Hansen has certainly struck a nerve. Well into its third year of sell-out crowds on Broadway, the four-week tour stop in Chicago was reportedly completely sold out before it opened, with tickets on the secondary market selling at prices almost unheard of in Chicago. Those who failed to buy Broadway in Chicago subscription seats or somehow snag a ticket at face value will likely want to wait for future tour stops, of which there will certainly be many, given the demonstrated staying power of this piece.

For those who planned ahead or are willing to pay scalper prices to see the show right now, what they'll see is a cast and production of Tony Award winning caliber, including a veteran of the Broadway cast in the title role, and no less than Broadway's Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll as Larry and Cynthia Murphy. Their fellow cast members are less credentialled but no less impressive in performance. The direction by Michael Greif and choreography by Danny Mefford are recreated in a fast-paced and slick production for this tour.

The young actor in the role of Evan Hansen is Ben Levi Ross, who's played that part as well as the supporting characters Jared and Connor as a replacement in the Broadway cast. Ross captures all the tics and rhythms of the clinically anxious and deeply lonely Evan, who oscillates between shutting off others and exploding into a nonstop volley of words when he tries to communicate. It's the role of a lifetime for any young actor, to be sure. As a high school senior estranged from the father who left the family ten years earlier, unconnected to his peers in school, and resentful of his working single mom's time-starved schedule, Ross grabs the audience starting with his first few lines and has us totally reeled in by the time he gets to his first big song, "Waving Through a Window."

After the suicide of classmate Connor Murphy, an alienated goth-attired teen, random events steer Evan into a series of transformations. A letter Evan has written to himself as an assignment from his psychotherapist and found by Connor's parents is mistaken for a suicide note from Connor. Initially out of kindness, Evan allows the Murphys to believe that he and Connor were best friends, and the parents start to see Evan as a conduit to better understand their lost son. An ambitious friend, Jared, with a knack for social media encourages Evan to become visible as a spokesperson for teen suicide prevention. When the movement gathers national attention, as shown in the anthemic first-act finale "You Will Be Found," Evan gains confidence even as the dangers of his elaborate ruse threaten greater trouble ahead. Ross makes his Evan as credible as the plot twists are improbable and he has the vocal chops for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's majestic rock score. It's easy to picture Ross having won a Tony for this performance had he originated the role rather than the estimable Ben Platt.

No less complex or compelling a character is Evan's mother Heidi, played here by Jessica Phillips, whose credits include a run as leading lady to Raul Esparza in the short-lived Leap of Faith. From her stiff-upper-lip optimism for Evan's improvement through therapy and her own juggling of school and work, her reaction to Evan's involvement in the phenomena following Connor's death and her eventual acknowledgement of the traumatic impact of her divorce, Phillips shows us both the strength and vulnerability of this contemporary woman in all too common circumstances. Like Ross, Phillips gives an award-worthy performance in an award-worthy role. Her delivery of the powerful 11 o'clock number "So Big, So Small," which reconciles Heidi and Evan, brings the musical to its emotional peak before its unexpectedly gentle conclusion.

Possibly the most original and refreshing of the characters in Steven Levenson's completely original book is Zoe Murphy, Connor's sister and Evan's love interest. Zoe fits no obvious teen-lit stereotypes—she's apparently a gifted kid (she plays in the jazz band) and attractive, but evidently neither enamored of nor rejected by a mean girl clique. This strong and lovable character is brought to life winningly by the Australian actress Maggie McKenna, who burst to fame down under as the lead of Muriel's Wedding: the Musical and as Fanny Brice in a concert version of Funny Girl We'll want to keep on eye on her career.

Christiane Noll has less to sing here than we might like to hear from someone who's sold some of the power ballads of Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde, but we feel for her as the visibly deeply grieving Cynthia Murphy. Aaron Lazar has a better showcase as Larry Murphy. His duet with Evan, "To Break in a Glove," in which he reveals his lost hopes for his son and starts to see Evan as a replacement of sorts, is exceptionally moving. Pasek and Paul's lyrics together with Lazar and Ross's performances land this piece which so easily could have been maudlin.

Marrick Smith shows off some impressive vocals as Connor and communicates both the dark, angry character we see before his suicide as well as Evan's vision of Connor speaking to him from the afterlife. The remaining two characters of this eight-person musical are more familiar types. Jared and Alana are brainy but irritating nerds we've seen before, but Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe do what they can with what they're given.

Teen angst and even teen suicide have been much written about. Decades ago, this sort of story would have been dismissed as "made for TV movie" stuff, but in the era of Netflix aren't all movies made for TV? Levinson's book skillfully blends in other themes of life today—economic pressures, single-parent families, the disconnection that comes from our hyper-connected world—which lifts Dear Evan Hansen above the average troubled-teen story. And Pasek and Paul's lyrics—conversational and rarely predictable—serve the story brilliantly. The team may not have written a lot of pop standards in this score, but the music serves the emotions of the piece.

Maybe someday in the future, this story will be dated. Maybe our infatuation with communicating through technology will subside and people will find it easier to really connect. We can hope for that, but for now and the foreseeable future we can look for insight or at least empathy for today's struggles in Dear Evan Hansen.

Dear Evan Hansen, March 10, 2019, at the James M. Nederlander (formerly Oriental) Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago IL. Ticket information at www.broadwayinchicago.com or by phone at 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit dearevanhansen.com/tour/.

[Editor's Note: After this review was published, an announcement was made of a return to Chicago for Dear Evan Hansen July 7 - September 27, 2020.]


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