SR review: “Dear Evan Hansen” at the James M. Nederlander Theatre

The first national tour of 2017’s Tony-winning best musical finally arrives in Chicago, and it lives up to the hype

Ben Levi Ross, center, and the first national tour cast of Dear Evan Hansen

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The first national tour of 2017’s Tony-winning best musical finally arrives in Chicago, and it lives up to the hype

Theater review by Kris Vire

If you had any doubts that musical theater is finding a foothold with post-millennial young audiences, I’d offer as evidence the audience last night at the theater formerly known as the Oriental. It was impossible not to notice that the cheers coming from the balconies above me after every number in Dear Evan Hansen were at a higher and more fevered pitch than for most Broadway in Chicago openings.

More than two years after its Broadway opening, Chicago is finally getting its chance to see a show that’s followed in the footsteps of Hamilton in terms of cultivating an ardent fan base online. That seems to be a trend for the digital-friendly realm of musicals, where streaming cast recordings (and increasingly social-media savvy creators and stars) can fuel online fandoms; DEH’s Chicago opening last night coincided with the first Broadway preview of Be More Chill, a musical based on a young-adult novel whose unlikely path to the Great White Way was paved by a devoted following on the internet.

Dear Evan Hansen’s teen-focused story certainly helps its own youthful impact. It’s almost too convoluted to summarize, but let’s try: The title character is a high-school senior with crippling social anxiety, a loving but overworked single mom, no real friends, and an out-of-control crush on Zoe, a girl he’s hardly ever spoken to.

From left: Ben Levi Ross, Aaron Lazar, Christiane Noll, Maggie McKenna

Evan’s therapist has tasked him with writing daily letters to himself, little pep talks to get him through the day. A printout of one of these self-directed letters, in which Evan is honest about both his extreme misery and his feelings for Zoe, falls into the hands of Zoe’s extremely troubled brother, Connor, who runs off with it.

Connor soon takes his own life, with the stolen letter still on his person; his parents assume it was a suicide note, and Evan, in a panic, doesn’t correct their assumption. To say things snowball from there is a massive understatement; by the end of the first act, Evan has enlisted a classmate to forge a backlog of fake emails between Connor and himself, inadvertently helped launch an awareness movement in Connor’s name, and had a speech he gives at a school memorial turn into a viral video.

It’s all so Upworthy, it’s a wonder Evan isn’t asked to sit down for an interview with Savannah Guthrie. But of course, it’s built on a mountain of (initially well-meaning) lies, and in Act II we watch it come crashing down.

If this all sounds a little tonally precarious, it is. Or at least it should be. But director Michael Greif, who painted with some similar colors in Next to Normal, manages to make this hazardous intersection of moods—grief and teen romance, parental guilt and adolescent resentment, high-school comedy and social-media nightmares—safe to cross.

Steven Levenson’s story isn’t unassailable. For one, Evan’s anxiety recedes—to the point of no longer needing his medications—way too easily. But Connor gets the shortest shrift of the characters—the dead boy, both commodified and reduced onstage to a voice in Evan’s head. (A YA-aimed novelization by Val Emmich along with the show’s writing team and released last fall, dives deeper into each character’s inner life. Full disclosure: I hosted the Chicago event on their book tour in October.) And it’s hard not to wonder how the musical, which leans heavily on the current social-media landscape for its plotting, will age. Technology moves fast and fades fast; 15 years ago right now, MySpace was a six-month-old upstart setting out to challenge the dominant social network, Friendster.

But Dear Evan Hansen is blessed with an extraordinarily emotional and exciting contemporary-pop score by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who’ve come quite a long way since I first profiled them seven years ago. (Between their Tony Awards for DEH, their Grammy for the cast album, and their best original song Oscar for La La Land, they achieved three-quarters of an EGOT in under a calendar year.)

Ben Levi Ross and Jessica Phillips

That score—which is conducted here on the first national tour by Chicago’s own Austin Cook—also comes with an extraordinary degree of difficulty, particularly for the actor in the title role. Ben Levi Ross, stepping into the big, Tony-winning shoes of Ben Platt, handles Evan’s enormous range—vocally and emotionally—with honeyed voice, solid humor, endearing charm and remarkable vulnerability.

And he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including Jessica Phillips as Evan’s mom and Christiane Noll as Connor and Zoe’s. This feels like a show that will return to Chicago on tour many a time before any local company gets a crack at it, but it may not come back with this caliber of cast. Dear reader: Get tickets if you can.

Dear Evan Hansen

James M. Nederlander Theatre (24 W Randolph St). Book by Steven Levenson. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Music supervision, orchestrations & additional arrangements by Alex Lacamoire. Choreography by Danny Mefford.

Cast: Ben Levi Ross (Evan Hansen), Maggie McKenna (Zoe Murphy), Jessica Phillips (Heidi Hansen), Christiane Noll (Cynthia Murphy), Marrick Smith (Connor Murphy), Aaron Lazar (Larry Murphy), Jared Goldsmith (Jared Kleinman), Phoebe Koyabe (Alana Beck), Stephen Christopher Anthony (Evan Hansen alternate).

Designers: David Korins (scenic), Emily Rebholz (costumes), Japhy Weideman (lighting), Nevin Steinberg (sound), Peter Nigrini (projections).

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes; one intermission. Through March 10. Tickets ($85–$175, more for premium seats) at

Photographs by Matthew Murphy.

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