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THEATER REVIEW Dear Evan Hansen
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-02-19

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Authors: Steven Levenson ( book ), Benj Pasek & Justin Paul ( music/lyrics )

At: Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets: BroadwayInChicago.com; $85-$399 ( yes, you read that right! ). Runs through: March 12

Powerful and moving Dear Evan Hansen is one of several recent small-scale musicals to grow from Off-Broadway success to Broadway triumph.

Along with Fun Home, Next to Normal and The Band's Visit ( among others ), it features a small onstage orchestra, no chorus, no big production numbers and a reduced role for choreography. Even further, Dear Evan Hansen has only 14 songs ( not counting reprises ), rather than the 18-24 of most musicals. With its extended and complex dialogue scenes, it often seems more like a play with music than a musical. These technical elements are secondary, of course, to how it all works, and the answer is "like gangbusters."

Skillfully written and directed ( by award-winning veteran Michael Greif ), Dear Evan Hansen benefits from nuanced, emotional performances from a fine, small ensemble lead by Ben Levi Ross in the title role. He's a thin young man whose soaring voice maintains power in all ranges, from falsetto down to low notes in the driving, mainstream rock score ( with lovely string embellishments ). His acting chops are convincing, too.

The well-publicized story concerns an isolated, socially challenged 17-year-old and how a misunderstanding becomes a small lie, and then a bigger lie, and then a long series of lies, as Evan uses a high school classmate's suicide to create a friendship that never existed and, in the process, visibility and acceptance Evan's never had. The adolescent protagonist and supporting characters are one reason Dear Evan Hansen has become a sold-out hit, drawing family and teenage theater-goers.

Along the way, the show touches on many aspects of family life and modern social habits, from teenage hormones and fear of rejection to instant celebrity/notoriety arising from out-of-control social media. Almost every adolescent—sometimes even younger—endures at some point feelings of isolation or differentness, friendship failures, sexual anxiety, family issues, etc. and I kept thinking "It Gets Better" during the performance.

The songs almost all come out of character instead of than plot, and dance is not at all part of the storytelling. Even so, the show provides many of the usual musical elements such as the hero's I-wish number "Waving Through a Window," the love song "If I Could Tell Her," the up tempo rhythm number "Sincerely, Me" and the rock anthem "You Will Be Found." All are highlights.

The physical production is relatively simple, essentially providing window dressing ( much of it via projections ) around a compelling intimate story. Indeed, I wonder how Dear Evan Hansen plays from the last rows of the 2,400-seat Nederlander Theatre. It would be ideal in a house one-fifth that size where everyone could see the actors' faces. Still, fine sound design makes lyrics and dialogue crystal-clear and well-balanced with the instruments.


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