The North American touring company of Dear Evan Hansen is currently appearing at the Hippodrome Theatre. Credit: Matthew Murphy

I knew Dear Evan Hansen would be sad, but I didn’t expect it to be so funny.

A show about loneliness, depression and the warp of social media might seem too on-the-nose after two years of pandemic. Not so. Seeing it live, surrounded by a laughing, appreciative audience at our own beautiful, familiar Hippodrome Theatre, was sheer joy.

A woman behind me savored every exchange between the socially awkward main character and the friends and family in his life.

She laughed when Evan Hansen’s maybe-girlfriend accuses him of apologizing too much, and he can’t help but blurt out, “I’m sorry.” She let out an approving “um hum” when he called out his single mother for leaving him to fend for his own dinner most nights.

At intermission, another woman, chatting excitedly with her friends, raved about the singing voice of Stephen Christopher Anthony, the talented actor who gives the titular main character an endearing mix of sit-com timing and deadpan teen sarcasm that masks a desperate yearning to be seen and understood.

As it happens, I had tickets to see Dear Evan Hansen at the Hippodrome in 2020, but, well, you know what happened. COVID-19 came and all the theaters closed.

The Hippodrome re-opened in September 2021 with a full slate of its Broadway Series shows. The new run for Evan Hansen is just five days, ending March 20, but I was still surprised to see the theater nearly full on a Tuesday night.

People of all ages looked like they were having a great time, some more dressed up than others but all wearing face masks. Of course, we all had to show our vax cards to get in.

The reward for these simple and reasonable precautions is the opportunity to see a talented cast, led by Anthony, weave a complex story with nuanced characters, buckets of pathos and great songs.

The show is long, at two and a half hours (including intermission), but the plot skips along and the energy remains high. We are getting to know these characters, not watching them perform for us, following along in horror as small gestures and decisions reap agonizing consequences.

The simple, well-designed sets rotate between Evan’s teen-boy bedroom, complete with ugly plaid blanket and a box of depression meds on the nightstand; and rooms in the home of the wealthier Murphy family. Walls of screens project social media scrolls, sometimes frenzied and often serving as the focus of the action.

The story, in brief: Evan Hansen is a lonely, awkward 17-year-old living with overworked mom Heidi (an excellent Jessica E. Sherman). As an assignment from his therapist, he writes a letter addressed to himself. It ends with his despairing question: “Would anyone notice if I just disappear tomorrow?”

Another student, Connor Murphy (Nikhil Saboo) steals the letter. Connor then dies by suicide, and when the letter is found with his body, his parents Larry (John Hemphill) and Cynthia (Claire Rankin) assume their son wrote it to Evan.

Then comes the twist that you either buy or you don’t, that you either can forgive or you can’t.

Seeing that this fiction brings comfort to Larry and Cynthia, Evan not only lets it stand, but he elaborates on it, creating a completely false history of shared moments, with the help of “family friend” Jared (Alessandro Costantini) an elaborate trail of back-dated emails.

“All that it takes is a little reinvention,” Evan sings, dancing with the ghost of Connor in the powerful “Sincerely, Me.”

As a result, Evan’s life turns around. He becomes close with the Murphy family and dates Connor’s sister Zoe (charming Stephanie La Rochelle).

He and classmate Alana (Ciara Alyse Harris) create The Connor Project, a movement to keep Connor’s memory alive – mostly by making up stuff about him and what he would have wanted. Evan’s speech about Connor becomes a social media sensation, providing real comfort to strangers even though just about every word is a lie.

There are a lot of big themes here – about depression, loneliness, suicide, parenting, grief, honesty and social media.

And there are questions: Did Evan break his arm by falling out of a tree by accident? Or did he do it on purpose? And if a boy falls in the forest, and nobody is there to see it, did it happen? What if that boy lies and says his best friend rescued him?

“You Will be Found,” the moving finale to Act One, provides some deliberately unearned, feel-good answers: “Even when the dark comes crashing through/ When you need a friend to carry you/When you’re broken on the ground/You will be found.”

Dear Evan Hansen, with a book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, premiered July 2015 at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. It debuted on Broadway in 2016, becoming a huge hit and making a star of angel-voiced, baby-faced Ben Platt, who played the title role.

Platt was also the lead in the significantly less-lauded 2021 Dear Evan Hansen movie, panned in part because Platt, who was 27 during filming, looked uncanny-valleyishly adult for the teenage role.

Anthony, with his slight build and his character’s teen-like perpetual embarrassment, doesn’t have that problem. His Evan is a floundering boy who is constantly sniffling and wiping away tears.

But I’d also argue that a live performance, and the energy of an audience, is just magical in a way that no movie can match.

So if you can, put on your mask, grab your vax card, and go.

Baltimore Fishbowl is thrilled to bring our readers stories and reviews of live performances throughout the Baltimore region, as venues are now Turning the Lights Back On.