If you want the most impressive example of current Broadway production values in all their slick, spell-binding glory, I give you Dear Evan Hansen, currently on its national tour via Broadway at the Hobby, after its award-winning run on the Great White Way and London's West End.
It is sumptuous in its design, hypnotic projections, laser lighting, smooth-as-silk direction. Its score, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land; The Greatest Showman; A Christmas Story, The Musical) is ear-pleasing gentle rock (all strings, guitar, bass, and drums) yet packs an emotional wallop not heard since Les Misérables. The book by Stephen Levenson is witty and literate as it catches the right tone and heft for the arc of this ultra-now story.
The wonder of this musical is that it's an original, not based on a cartoon, fan-favorite best seller, or an artist's song catalog of greatest hits.
The lead character Evan (Stephen Christopher Anthony, spelled on Saturday matinee and Sunday evening by Sam Primack) is perfectly nerdy and sad-sack: all tics, eye rubbing, and sweaty palms, as he falls into a social media hell of his own making. He is us. Always relatable, always sympathetic. We know his choices are bad, but we also know why he's doing what he's doing. Would we do anything different if we were him?
As an assignment from his psychologist, Evan writes self-help letters to himself. Terribly lonely, his life is like “Waving Through a Window” where nobody sees him. School bully Conner (charismatic Noah Kieserman) steals Evan's letter in a prank, but when he later commits suicide, the letter is found in his pocket. Everyone thinks Evan was Conner's confidant and best friend, although no one knows either of them. The attention and adulation is incredibly seductive. No longer an outsider, alone, depressed, he is nerd no more. Evan is king of high school, a viral sensation throughout the internet. Goaded by his randy schoolmate Jared (Alessandro Costantini), to whom he confides, Evan writes more fake letters and falls deeper into his deception. For a while he seems to have it all – new family (John Hemphill and Claire Rankin), new girlfriend (Stephanie La Rochelle), thousands of hits on his Twitter feed.
As his life spins out of control, the guilt of his lies begins to crush him. “You Will Be Found” is his anthem (the musical's hit song), and it serves him in the first act as he pleads for acceptance, and works even better as reprise in the second act when he realizes what he must do to find completeness. To be himself – to be found – he must tell the truth and accept the consequences.
A sensation since its Off-Broadway premiere, Dear Evan Hansen certainly deserves its accolades. It is rich and fancy in look and sounds even better. Though intimate in story, it encapsulates the explosive allure of the internet, the pursuit of quick fame, the soul-depleting loneliness of “the other.” Nobody wants to “Disappear.” Everybody gets caught up in Evan's lies, using the emotional trigger for whatever suits their own failings or desires. They need this deception as much as Evan.
Structured with all the know-how of showbiz at its best, Evan Hansen is still a trifle one-note. For all its bells and whistles, it feels at times like a modern teen version of The Perils of Pauline. Poor Evan keeps getting dragged deeper and deeper into more predicaments with each passing day. But the scenic fluidity of director Michael Grief nimbly compensates and hides any sameness. Ace designer David Korins' translucent scrims float by in an unending stream, covered with Peter Negrini's superlative projections of multiple internet posts or enlargements of Evan's writings, while background panels and screens jump alive with relevant images of each scene. In a stunning coup de theatre, at the finale the entire upstage is flooded in vivid sky-blue, as if to confirm Evan's ultimate benediction. It's all quite breathtaking.
But the most magic happens – as can only occur in a Broadway musical – in a song. In a classic “11 o'clock number,” Mom (Jessica Sherman) forgives Evan his trespasses. Single, getting by on a nurse's salary and going to night school to better herself, she's been fairly strident to Evan throughout. But when he breaks down and confesses that he's a terrible person, she melts us all with her glorious backstory, “So Big/So Small.” “You Will Be Found” might be the show's mantra, but Mom's forgiving aria of maternal love and acceptance is its apotheosis. You can hear ripples of sniffling weave up through the aisles.
With all its cult status and awards, is Dear Evan Hansen a masterpiece? Well, no, but it's mighty good. Not since Hamilton has a show burrowed into the audience with such unabashed fervor and universal appeal. Its wonders will be around for a very long time. Pasek & Paul just may be the next Rodgers & Hammerstein. For now, this one, for certain, is a keeper.
Dear Evan Hansen continues through November 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $55-$125. With a special digital ticket lottery available for a limited number of $25 tickets each performance, The lottery began accepting entries 48 hours before the first performance.