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“Dear Evan Hansen” is back in Chicago in top form

Is “Dear Evan Hansen” dated or present?

It’s a good question and one that spooled through my mind as I saw the well-known musical, charting the fevered goings-on at a high school, for the fourth time. On the one hand, much of the social media shown in the show already feels very 2016, given how fast that culture has changed. A scene even hinges on the need to pay cash for something, which vanished during the pandemic. And, given our intensely moralistic moment, the whole notion of a deeply flawed, badly behaving hero like Evan Hansen now terrifies American musicals to death.

And yet here was a show that looked at a young person’s mental health long before anxiety and depression ascended to the top of our collective minds. Here was a piece that caught the moment just as a pending rush of tech-driven isolation began to change teenagers’ lives forever, before anyone began to really see that virtual communities could spiral out of control, amplifying precisely that which needed to be kept personal and becoming easy prey for manipulators who know how to speak the language of virtue but actually crave personal power.

For me, at least, “Dear Evan Hansen” remains an important American musical because of the originality of its thought, the strength of its score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and, frankly, its ability to hit such a chord with audiences without telling the story of a pop star or adapting some long-popular movie. Musicals built from whole cloth, as the writer Steven Levenson crafted this one, remain rare. And hit ones are even rarer.

The last time “Dear Evan Hansen” toured through Chicago, the show was still red hot and the producers could have sold far more weeks. They promised to return but then, of course, the pandemic intervened (how on earth would Evan have survived the pandemic?) and it took a good long while. For some, given the less-than-ideal movie adaptation, the show now feels overexposed, not unlike Harry and Meghan. But the piece has a firm fan base. Most of the people around me at the Nederlander Theater last Thursday night knew pretty much every note.

You’re still seeing the original production, of course, and not some cut back, non-union tour (the same cannot be said for “Chicago,” coming in January to the CIBC Theatre). I’ll venture this is probably the last opportunity to catch the show, if you’ve never had the pleasure before it finds its way out into local productions. Whether high schools will have the courage to stage the piece remains to be seen; there are pitfalls.

Suffice to say here that you are getting an excellent cast, including a solid lead performance from Anthony Norman, who deftly walks that crucial line between empathetic vulnerability and, well, teen myopia. On the night I saw the show, we saw a lovely piece of work from the Zoe understudy, Valeria Ceballos, who mastered both the character’s skepticism and her vulnerability.

But the performance of the night here is from the superb Coleen Sexton, who plays Evan Hansen’s mom and who absolutely nails the most moving number in the show, that being the one where she sings, “Your mom isn’t going anywhere. Your mom is staying right here.”

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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Review: “Dear Evan Hansen” (3.5 stars)

When: Through Dec. 31

Where: Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $39-$156.50 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com

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