When I saw the smash-hit Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen before the pandemic, my main takeaways were that the songs were catchy and Ben Platt, though undeniably talented, was too old to play the titular high-school senior.
My, how things have changed.
This past February, the Come From Away tour had a brief Chicago engagement at the Cadillac Palace. As I wrote at the time, “Something special happened at the opening… At an uncertain time, this 9/11 story resonated with and lifted up a masked audience hungry to return to normal while coping with profound loss and societal upheaval. The perfect show for this moment.”
The covid era has had a similar effect on Dear Evan Hansen. Two years of social distancing led the world to rely ever more on social media. But looking for real human connection on Facebook, Twitter and TikTok is a mug’s game, or worse yet, a Musk’s game. On the other hand, sometimes that simulacrum of togetherness provides what feels like a true infusion of hope and healing. Dear Evan Hansen essentially asks: Do the feel-good ends ever justify the means when it comes to manipulative social-media campaigns? And why do so many people keep falling for and participating in them?
Or as Carrie Bradshaw might put it, Watching Dear Evan Hansen, I couldn’t help but wonder: Can the Facebook feed truly feed our souls?
A glance at the Broadway in Chicago opening night audience in the Nederlander Theatre on December 9 suggests people do need their social feed fix, however fleeting and diminishing the emotional returns may be. The masks mandated during the February run of Come From Away have largely given way to people burying their faces in their mobile devices until the iPhone ring reminder nudges people to stop posting for the next two hours and thirty minutes (with time for a few quick updates during intermission). Surrounded by real, live people, many people still choose to bathe in the glow of their phones.
And Dear Evan Hansen reproduces those familiar feeds in every nook and cranny of the stage not occupied by an actor. Our eyes are drawn to the hashtags even as the action plays out below.
The show is built on something equally familiar: the classic sitcom misunderstanding, but with much higher stakes than usual. Evan Hansen suffers from debilitating social anxiety. His therapist assigns him to write letters to himself (“Dear Evan Hansen…”) as part of his treatment. Another troubled student, Connor Murphy, swipes Evan’s latest missive from the school computer lab printer. Connor kills himself soon after, and his parents conclude the letter is their son’s suicide note, directed to the friend they never knew he had. Not wanting to rob them of this solace, Evan begins fabricating a friendship backstory that spins wildly out of control and becomes a social media sensation.
But before the drama comes to a head, Connor’s parents, whose marriage was on the rocks, find themselves reconnecting to each other, and their daughter finds what she believes may turn out to be a happy romantic ending with Evan himself. To avoid spoilers, the only thing I will say beyond that is the consequences Evan faces for his actions are not what one would expect them to be, and even one of the people most deeply betrayed by the deception seems to believe it ultimately did more good than harm. It’s a pretty big needle scratch moment, made all the more glaring by a last-minute twist designed to make audiences feel more forgiving of Evan, whose actions are increasingly unforgivable as the story progresses.
But audiences do not adore Dear Evan Hansen for its somewhat dodgy plot: They flock to the performances because of the songs and the deep emotions they so effectively convey. The underlying story, though, is more relevant now than ever. While Evan reluctantly becomes a social media star based on an increasingly tall mountain of lies, another student latches on to the dead teen she barely knew and wills herself into a starring role as one of his closest friends, and the one who will heal other vulnerable people via his cautionary tale. A thrumming throng of interconnected social media strangers lap up each hit of hopium, while Connor’s family refuses to question the increasingly contradictory and implausible tale of friendship Evan spins, because it’s the only thing that makes them feel better.
I don’t think those ends justify the means, but more and more social feed and reality TV addicts seem to disagree, making the morally ambiguous message of Dear Evan Hansen more relatable with each passing disinformation and astroturfing campaign that captures our attention when we really should be, as they say, touching grass, or in the case of Evan Hansen, climbing trees.
Enough of the analysis, though. We’ve all got social lives to simulate. So does the production deliver? Yes. This tour of Dear Evan Hansen will resonate with audiences. The star, Anthony Norman, returns to his Chicago roots with a deeply felt and beautifully sung performance. Nikhill Saboo delivers a satisfyingly soulful turn as the suicidal Connor. And John Hemphill, as Connor’s dad, connects with Evan via a surprisingly moving rendition of “To Break in a Glove.” The cast is uniformly strong, the production design is crisp and modern, and the highlight songs–from “Waving Through a Window” to “For Forever” and “Words Fail”–pack their usual emotional charge.
I don’t love what I see in the mirror this musical holds up to society, but it makes a point much deeper than the usual hot takes scrolling endlessly by on our social feeds.
Dear Evan Hansen runs through December 31 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre
Photo by Evan Zimmerman