‘Dear Evan Hansen’ mulls over the price of acceptance, the cost of deception

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Ben Levi Ross (from left, as Evan Hansen), Aaron Lazar (as Larry Murphy) , Christiane Noll (as Cynthia Murphy) and Maggie McKenna (as Zoe Murphy) in a scene from “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Nederlander Theatre. | Matthew Murphy

More than any other musical out there, “Dear Evan Hansen” highlights the devastating dichotomy of social media. Thanks to Facebook (et al), humans are more connected and more isolated than they’ve ever been. With a click, you can keep up with friends on the other side of the planet. Yet every time you compulsively scroll through somebody else’s carefully curated online life, you reduce yourself to being (as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s cutting lyrics put it) “on the outside, always looking in,” a distant background figure in somebody else’s story.

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ ★★★1⁄2 When: Through March 10 Where: Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph Tickets: $88 – $175 Info: broadwayinchicago.com

For people such as the socially awkward, deeply insecure high school senior Evan Hansen, feeling forever on the outside is a source of torment. He’s far from alone in his obsessive worry that if he disappeared nobody would notice. But he’s got virtually no way of knowing that, not when every human in his electronic orbit seems to be living their best lives. Nobody seems to Instagram moments of darkness, depression and loneliness. Staring into his laptop, Evan reasonably concludes those topics are the crimes of losers.

The double-edged sword of social media propels “Dear Evan Hansen,” a six-time Tony Award-winner in 2017 (including best musical) with a book by Steven Levenson. The plot ultimately shies away from depicting the profound and lasting damage that can result from ill-advised social media posts (especially ones that go viral). But its exploration of the devastating impact of insecurity hits hard. For all today’s anti-bullying initiatives, self-care advocacy and it-gets-better campaigns, humankind has yet to find the cure for feeling alone, misunderstood and overwhelmingly angry.

In the opening monologue, Evan (Ben Levi Ross) gives voice to the universal feeling that gets everybody at one point or another. You desperately want to communicate, but you’re dead-certain if you try, you will say the absolute wrong thing, something indelible and unforgivable. So Evan doesn’t truly communicate with anyone. And with every passing, isolated hour, his unhappiness grows.

Within the first 15 minutes of “Dear Evan Hansen,” one of Hansen’s classmates commits suicide. Nobody really knew Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), a stoner deemed a psychopath by his sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna) and mocked for his “school shooter chic” look by cruel, snarky classmate Jared (Jared Goldsmith).

After his death, Connor – friendless in life – becomes a beacon of light for his school, beloved and remembered by everyone who never knew him. Jared starts moving memorial merch – buttons with Connor’s face on them. Over-achiever Alana (Phoebe Koyabe) tearfully remembers her “closest acquaintance” (that she’s pretty sure she knew from history class) and starts the “The Connor Project,” an extracurricular activity sure to impress college admission committees and featuring everything from sharing circles to healing yoga classes to a memorial Kickstarter in Connor’s memory.

Ben Levis Ross and the cast of the first North American tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” | Matthew Murphy

Ben Levis Ross as the title character with the cast of the first North American tour of “Dear Evan Hansen.” | Matthew Murphy

But it’s Evan who benefits the most from Connor’s death. Through a lie that starts as a form of kindness and quickly mushrooms into a massively fraudulent and cruel deception, Evan transforms from school loser to viral hero. Connor’s wealthy parents take Evan in as a kind of surrogate son. Evan even gets the girl: Zoe, long the girl of his dreams, who is touched by Evan’s supposed relationship with her brother.

Of course, Evan didn’t know Connor at all, despite the online trail of backdated e-mails between the boys. When the lies start to unravel, “Dear Evan Hansen” falters. The plot moves from a scene where Zoe and her parents seem to be in very real danger (it doesn’t take much for a social media following to turn into a pitchfork-waving mob) to a scene of beatific serenity that’s utterly free of electronic anything. The online mob melts away, with no lasting harm done.

The rosy-hued resolution aside, director Michael Greif’s cast makes every moment feel authentic, painfully so at times. Ross is pitch-perfect as a teen tormented by the suspicion that he is and will always be a loser. The tenor he lets loose on the anthemic “You Will Be Found,” and “Waving Through A Window” vaults to the heavens.

As Evan’s mother Heidi, Jessica Phillips emits the harried weariness of a single mother with a fulltime job, night school and a son she deeply loves but cannot reach and barely has time to see. As Connor, Smith radiates the dangerous rage of a kid who has never felt loved. And Koyabe makes you understand just why Alana is compelled to make Connor’s death about herself.

The nine-person orchestra (conducted by Austin Cook) perched above the stage sounds lush and full. And the all-important video projections by Peter Nigrini overwhelmingly capture the influence and unavoidable noise of social media.

When everything is utterly unplugged in the final scene, it comes as a sweet relief – both for the characters, and for the audience that’s been peering into their lives.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Editor’s note: It was announced on Feb. 15 that “Dear Evan Hansen” will return to Chicago for a 12-week run in 2020. The musical will be presented July 7-Sept. 27, 2020, at the Nederlander Theatre, 24. W. Randolph. Tickets, $85-$175, will go on sale at 10 a.m. Feb. 19 at broadwayinchicago.com. There is 4-ticket limit per household.

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