Dear Evan Hansen portrays its teen hero with wit and pathos | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Dear Evan Hansen portrays its teen hero with wit and pathos

Hey, white boys have feelings too!

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Esquire caught some hell for its recent cover story on the plight of straight white male suburban teens. But it's possible to center that demographic with smarts and heart. Grief—or a simulacrum thereof—goes viral in Dear Evan Hansen, the 2017 Tony Award-winning musical about the anxious title character, now in a stellar touring production.

Evan (Ben Levi Ross) writes atta-boy letters to himself on the advice of his therapist. When one ends up in the pocket of Connor (Marrick Smith), a sullen classmate who commits suicide, Evan invents a friendship with Connor, both as a way to assuage the pain of Connor's family and to build his own social profile.

On paper, the premise sounds a little creepy. But Steven Levenson's book efficiently builds the case for how social media (neatly captured by Peter Nigrini's projections on David Korins's sleek and near-antiseptic set) lends itself to a tangle of self-aggrandizement and selflessness. The contrast between Evan's economically anxious single mom, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), and Connor's wealthy, trend-hopping stay-at-home mother, Cynthia (Christiane Noll), feels a bit cliche. But the show has a firm grip on the way teens both reveal and mask themselves, which Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's soaring score brings out with wit ("Sincerely, Me") and aching pathos ("Waving Through a Window").

Ross is terrific, but he's well matched by the rest of the ensemble (especially Maggie McKenna as Zoe, Connor's sister and the object of Evan's affections) in Michael Greif's staging.   v

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