‘Dear Evan Hansen’: Gifted actors have keen grasp on musical’s feelings of optimism, alienation

The social media commentary in the Tony-winning show, now at the Nederlander Theatre, remains as timely as it was at its premiere in 2015.

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Anthony Norman (with Alaina Anderson) captures the contradictions and messiness of being a flawed human teenager in the title role of “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The Hydra-like power of social media is emphasized early in “Dear Evan Hansen.” The high school teens at the epicenter of the musical running through New Year’s Eve at the Nederlander Theatre are often framed (engulfed, more like) by an ever-scrolling onslaught of hashtags, texts, photos and emojis, perhaps never so poignantly as in the second number, when the socially awkward title character unleashes “Waving Through a Window.”

The song (score and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) is a sonic high point in the six-time Tony-winning musical. The melody is as soaring, wistful and lonesome as a Roy Orbison ballad. It’s impossible not to relate to Anthony Norman’s emotive Evan Hansen, singing about isolation, surrounded by relentlessly curated pix of his smiling peers. The yearning disaffection in the lyrics foreshadow the first-act suicide that sets the musical’s plot into motion.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is an irresistibly upbeat, insistent testimony to the belief that no one is alone. The tunefully arcing optimism of “You Will Be Found” hits like a blast of sunshine. But despite the euphoria that informs much of the score and the sense of well-being that concludes Steven Levenson’s book, “Dear Evan Hansen” also shows the irrecoverable losses that occur when feelings of alienation shut out all the light.

‘Dear Evan Hansen’

‘Dear Evan Hansen’

When: Through Dec. 31

Where: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph

Tickets: $39-$120

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Finally, its pointed commentary on the self-serving impulse at (or near) the heart of so many supposedly selfless social media campaigns remains as timely as it was when the show premiered in 2015. Directed by Michael Grief, the musical still runs like clockwork — or a late-model phone — and hits all the right notes.

The somewhat convoluted story hinges on the first act (offstage) suicide. Evan (Jeffrey Cornelius at some performances) winds up posing as the dead student’s best friend, even though they barely knew each other. The ruse starts accidentally, but Evan eventually becomes a willing participant in a tangled, elaborate email scheme that draws in the entire family of the deceased. When Evan’s memorial speech goes viral, he’s forced to take the deception to ever-deeper levels.

He’s aided and abetted by his comic sidekick pal Jared Kleinman (Pablo David Laucerica, giving bad advice with hilariously fearless conviction), who agrees to create a trove of “backdated” electronic records that will “prove” how close Evan was to the suicide victim.

Meanwhile, chronic high school overachiever Alana Beck (Micaela Lamas) laments to anyone in earshot that she’s lost her “closest acquaintance,” and appoints herself co-president of a campaign to raise $50,000 for a memorial grove.

Teenagers not being masterminds and social media being the searchable trove of receipts that it is, the skein of exaggerations, lies, omissions and underlying agendas comes to light, resulting in humiliation and emotional devastation on all sides.

One of the flaws in “Dear Evan Hansen” is that it glosses over the fallout from the viral mendacity. Instead of dealing with it, the plot leaps from crisis point to many months later. The strife has apparently evaporated off stage. The set (projection design by Peter Nigrini, set by David Korins) is no longer dominated by a barrage of social media posts but by a romantically lit orchard.

The other problem lies in Evan’s memorial speech, a remembrance supposedly so powerful that it makes him an insta-celebrity. We never actually hear most of that speech. What we do hear is about as viral as an office breakroom poster.

That said, the cast here is terrific. As Evan, Norman captures the contradictions and messiness of being a flawed human teenager. As badboy Connor Murphy, Nikhil Saboo channels a long line of them, shades of James Dean, Judd Nelson and Fezco merging with a puckish charisma.

As Evan and Connor’s respective moms, Coleen Sexton and Lili Thomas duet with fiery maternal attitude in the parental lament “Anybody Have a Map?” Lamas’ delivery of a single line turns Alana 180 degrees from craven to empathetic. And as Connor’s sister Zoe, Alaina Anderson finds layers in a poker-faced character with a nearly ironclad shell.

There are no big boffo dance numbers here. “Dear Evan Hansen” is a chamber musical powerfully grounded in emotion. As its protagonists struggle to navigate its extremes on- and offline, you’ll feel for them.

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