The sobbing you hear underscoring the production of “Dear Evan Hansen” – currently on tour and on stage at Playhouse Square after being recognized as the best musical on Broadway in 2017 – is coming from both sides of the proscenium. It is the sound of actors lost in their astoundingly honest and gut-wrenching depiction of people in pain and the audience’s gut-response to it.
The musical revolves around Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross), a chronically introverted high schooler with no friends, a single Mom (Jessica Phillips) and a secret crush on Zoe Murphy (understudy Ciara Alyse Harris). A self-disclosing letter he has written to himself as part of his therapy – addressed to “Dear Evan Hansen” and signed “Your most best and dearest friend, Me” – is found by Zoe’s troubled brother, Connor (Marrick Smith), which gets mistaken for his suicide note. When Evan sees how the letter comforts and unites Connor’s grieving parents (Christine Noll and Aaron Lazar), he fabricates a friendship with Connor, which gets him noticed by his classmates (Phoebe Koyabe and Jared Goldsmith), brings him closer to Zoe, and turns him and Connor’s suicide into an internet sensation when everything goes viral.
The Tony Award-winning script by Steven Levenson is smart and funny in all the right places at all the right times. The Tony and Grammy Award-winning contemporary pop music score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is chockful of heartbreak by way of gorgeous ballads supported by a string-heavy eight-piece orchestra under Austin Cook’s terrific musical direction. Both are delivered by an absolutely brilliant cast loaded with Broadway credits and staged by four-time Tony Award nominated director Michael Greif.
If these folks don’t know how to push all the buttons that open the emotional floodgates, no one does.
Well, so do the creators of “Next to Normal” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” two other Tony Award-winning musicals that came through Playhouse Square and which place mental disorders – manic depression and Asperger’s Syndrome, respectively – on the front burner. But “Dear Evan Hansen” concentrates on the aftermath of an episode – the pain felt by Connor’s family as reflected in the song “Requiem,” the inspired albeit fleeting compassion of his classmates as expressed in “You Will Be Found,” and Evan Hansen’s sense of regret represented in “Words Fail” – to create its very emotional landscape. All this generates so much vulnerability that it is hard not to feel as the characters do.
Making it even harder to resist is the show’s visual design. David Korins (scenic) and Japhy Weideman (lighting) keep the stage barren save for a few small set pieces -- a bed, a dining room table, a work bench -- that flow in and out with remarkable stealth, and some high-quality, high-tech stagecraft by Peter Nigrini that establishes the omnipresence of social media through a scroll of texts and posts projected on translucent screens that surround the performance space. Otherwise, the stage is dark and characters are illuminated in isolating spotlights that add weight to everything.
Even if the intensity of the story, the soundtrack, the set and the self-actualizing of the characters don’t move you, the performances by this eight-member cast most certainly will. Their voices are rich and expressive, and their acting is astoundingly authentic. Everyone digs deep, is interesting all the time and leaves everything they have on the stage, which is a rare and wonderful occurrence.
So get a ticket, if you can. And bring a Kleenex.