Let's not wait until the end to sum up: "Dear Evan Hansen" is an extraordinary piece of musical theater, and if you have a chance to see it at Shea's, you should go.
The show is the modern-day story of Evan Hansen, a socially inept high school senior who struggles to make friends. His time-stressed mom has him in counseling, and his counselor has him on anti-anxiety drugs. They aren't helping. Neither is his assignment to write daily letters to himself, little "pep talks" about why his day will be amazing.
Ben Levi Ross captures Evan's isolation with a precision that is so perfect it is painful, and painfully funny, to watch. He looks like a real teenager, especially when telegraphing to his Mom the futility of her upbeat advice. Jessica Phillips plays Heidi Hansen, an overworked and overstressed single mom, with a believable mix of love and frustration. Her opening lament about the pitfalls of parenting draws knowing nods and sympathy.
Meanwhile, after a wretched day at school where he's bullied and ignored, Evan realizes he hasn't produced the daily letter he needs before he goes to his therapist. Rushing through it in the school computer lab, Evan vents that there no way this day, or any other in his life, will ever be amazing. He wishes that everything were different, that what he said would matter to somebody, and that he could connect with Zoe, the girl he has a crush on. He also writes "I wonder if anybody would noticed if I disappeared tomorrow?"
Disaster strikes when Evan hits print. Connor Murphy, a troubled bully who dresses in "school shooter chic," grabs Evan's letter from the printer and taunts him. When Connor notices that Evan has mentioned his sister, Zoe, he goes into a rage and keeps the letter to ruin Evan's life.
But Connor (Marrick Smith) never gets that chance. We learn that he has killed himself, and that his parents have found the letter, written to "Dear Evan Hansen." They think it is a suicide note.
Awkward in the best of situations, Evan is incapable of telling the truth to the grieving Murphys. Instead, he lies, telling Connor's parents that the two were good friends and spent a lot of time together talking about their dreams and stuff. His stories comfort Connor's grieving mother (the wonderful Christine Noll), and give Connor's father (a stoic Aaron Lazar) a way to process the idea that his son -- who constantly rejected him -- wanted his love and attention.
Connor was angry and defiant at home and considered a freak at school. As news of his suicide spreads, he gets another chance to be accepted. Alana, the class joiner and organizer, is leading the bandwagon to mourn her classmate (who may or may not have been in her 10th grade English) by starting a blog in his memory. Phoebe Koyabe does a great job as Alana, an energetic pleaser who has her own problems making the leap from acquaintance to friendship.
Evan's other sort-of friend Jared (Jared Goldsmith, clearly having fun) provides more support by writing a back-dated email history between Evan and Connor. He also provides many of the comic moments with his well-placed bursts of profanity and recognizing that this whole suicide-note misunderstanding is bull----.
Over the next two hours, the triumph of style over reality marches on through a social media storm, as viral dead Connor invigorates the lives of those he formerly terrorized. Even Connor's sister, Zoe (Maggie McKenna), who knew him as the monster who would bang on her door and say he would kill her, is beginning to appreciate the new Connor created by Evan. More to the point, she begins to appreciate Evan.
Zoe's attention is what finally leads Evan to embrace the lies and nurture the hype. He starts the Connor Project, an online fundraiser to build a memorial to his dead imaginary friend.
Of course, the weight of all this eventually brings everything crashing down. When it does, "Dear Evan Hansen" shifts gears from false hopes to painful revelations, and the authenticity is wrenching. The set until now had been framed in drapes covered with projections from online posts, texts, blogs and email -- a visible representation of the Internet. When the truth comes out -- and there are more truths than we expect -- the cloud of content evaporates.
That is where the show's magic is found -- in its honesty, simplicity and familiarity. None of the characters are caricatures, no one is the enemy. The emotional depth of Steven Levenson's book comes through in the songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and we could not have asked for a better cast to perform them.
Lots of people bought season tickets to Shea's Broadway series for the first time last year to assure they would be able to see "Hamilton." With "Dear Evan Hansen" also in the package, they were luckier than they knew.
"Dear Evan Hansen"
★ ★ ★★ (out of four stars)
Through May 19 in Shea's Buffalo Theatre (646 Main St.). Tickets are extremely limited; check sheas.org for availability.