Ever since “Hamilton” made musical theater cool again, Broadway in Chicago performances have been packed to the brim with eager theater-goers ready to laugh, cry and sing along — in their heads, that is.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is no exception. The musical opened Feb. 13 at the recently renamed James M. Nederlander Theatre (formerly the Oriental Theatre), and more than 2,000 attendees impatiently sat in their red velvet lined seats, waiting for the lights to dim and the orchestra to hum — indisputable signs that a musical is beginning.
As those same attendees were leaving the theater, they were gifted with complimentary “Dear Evan Hansen” hats as a token of appreciation for being the show’s first Chicago audience.
“Dear Evan Hansen” first debuted on Broadway in New York in 2016 and continues to have regular performances. TV and movie actors such as Ben Platt (“Pitch Perfect,” “Pitch Perfect 2”) and Laura Dreyfuss (“Glee,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) starred in the original production.
The show, while plentiful in moving, poignant ballads, as well as a few more upbeat, bouncy songs, has become renowned for its commentary on sensitive topics, such as teen suicide and mental illness.
“Dear Evan Hansen” has been highly praised and won major awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical.
High school senior Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross) struggles with an anxiety disorder, and his therapist recommends he write himself letters to set a positive outlook for the day with the prompt, “Dear Evan Hansen, today is going to be a good day and here’s why.” When Evan writes himself a depressing letter, disclosing how he thinks nothing will ever get better, it winds up in the hands of a bully — Connor Murphy. Connor subsequently takes his own life, and the letter is mistaken for a suicide note, leading everyone to believe that Connor and Evan were close friends.
It’s a story of a lie snowballing out of control, how the lie changes the lives of Evan and everyone around him and how a desire to feel wanted can lead people to mislead others.
The musical featured many outstanding performances. The role of Evan Hansen seems difficult with the character’s many quirks and awkward, anxiety-ridden behaviors, but Ross does the character justice. He also had a killer voice.
One of the most notable performances was Jessica Phillips as Evan’s mom, Heidi Hansen. Heidi works full-time as a nurse’s aide while attending night school, and her busy schedule negatively affects her relationship with Evan.
Phillips’ character reflects all the parents who do everything to make their child’s mental illness more bearable and — since it’s almost never easy to overcome — inevitably come up short through no fault of their own. Muffled sobs were heard across the audience as Phillips belted out her heartbreaking solo, “So Big / So Small,” which details the story of Evan’s father leaving when he was a young child and the hardships of being a single parent.
At any moment in the show, vertical columns projected dozens of luminescent images resembling phone and computer screens. This interpolation of technology in the musical is not only a sign of the times, but a subtle reminder of technology’s negative effects on mental health.
While audiences will definitely need a pack of tissues to get through this show, they’ll leave the theater with hopeful smiles on their faces. The show ends on a note suggesting there’s always a reason to keep going and no one is ever truly alone despite life’s trials.
Fans who won’t be able to make it to any of this tour’s performances shouldn’t fret — a 2020 return was already announced.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is playing at the James M. Nederlander Theatre (24 W. Randolph St.) through March 10. Tickets start at $85 and can be purchased at the box office or online at www.ticketmaster.com/artist/2503640?brand=bicartist.