'Dear Evan Hansen': Theater Review

DEAR EVAN HANSEN -Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones -H 2016
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Vibrant and tender.

This new contemporary musical stars Ben Platt of 'Pitch Perfect' fame as a depressed high-schooler caught up in a lie that acquires a life of its own in the social media bubble.

Not since Spring Awakening has a new musical spoken more directly than Dear Evan Hansen to the melancholy adolescent outsider buried inside us. According to one observer here, high school can be a lonely time of life for everyone except cheerleaders and football stars, and if there's a hint of maudlin teen pandering to the show's sentiments, there's also enough sincere emotion to make it quite affecting. That's due to smart writing and a fine cast led by Ben Platt, best known for the Pitch Perfect movies, in a breakout performance full of self-effacing humor, raw feeling and endearingly awkward grace. Only please let's not call him "adorkable."

Already tipped to make a move to Broadway next season, the show is a collaboration of playwright Steven Levenson (a writer on Showtime's Masters of Sex) and the talented composing team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who earned praise with Dogfight, also at off-Broadway's Second Stage, and then cemented that promise with the delightful musical adaptation of A Christmas Story. A success on Broadway and in regional tours, that holiday confection had way more freshness and charm than anyone had a right to expect. Those qualities also apply to this original piece, which was inspired by an incident from Pasek's high school years and recalls any number of real-life stories of ill-considered teenage behavior spiraling out of control in the social media age.

Platt plays the title character, a withdrawn high school senior consigned to the invisible margins, who babbles nervously, apologizes constantly and has trouble connecting with others. His caring, divorced mother, Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones), does what she can to be supportive and to make sure he's OK for anti-depressant refills. But she's stretched thin as an overworked hospital orderly studying to be a paralegal, so she's not always around, and every conversation with him is like pulling teeth.

One of Evan's therapy assignments is to write himself daily letters to build self-esteem. But those intimate missives instead take a more desolate tone, revealing a hopelessness relieved only by the slender chance that his classmate, Zoe Murphy (Laura Dreyfuss), a cool, self-possessed beauty with a faraway smile, might one day notice him. When his "Dear Evan Hansen" note falls into the hands of Zoe's brother, Connor (Mike Faist), another misfit loner of a darker, more disaffected kind, public humiliation seems guaranteed. But the unexpected happens, resulting in a lie that's part accident and part well-intended impulse, which allows Evan to rebuild himself as a new person. The inevitable exposure of that lie provides the show's main source of tension.

It's difficult to break down the musical without revealing the trigger incident, so be warned and stop reading if you plan on catching the production and care about spoilers. Connor's gloomy hostility cuts deeper than anyone imagined and, early in the show, he kills himself. When his parents, bored stay-at-home mom Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and corporate lawyer Larry (John Dossett), find Evan's crumpled letter in his pocket, they assume it's a suicide note to a close friend of the son they believed was friendless. Evan tries to set them straight, but soon finds himself fabricating a parallel reality to fulfill their needs, and gradually, his own, too. Even Zoe, initially skeptical that her brother was anything but empty and mean, starts buying Evan's consoling fiction, drawing them together.

Levenson's writing is clever in its observations of how eager people are to eulogize the dead, and how the mania for Facebook-liking, reposting, retweeting and vlogging can turn a personal tragedy overnight into a communal one. This is illustrated most succinctly by Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd), a driven Tracy Flick type, not exactly high on the popularity chart, who takes charge of "The Connor Project." "He was one of my closest acquaintances," she states without irony. Evan also gets help from his condescending tech-savvy friend Jared (Will Roland), who has the skills to create a backdated email chain.

Back in territory close to the chronic family dysfunction of Next to Normal, director Michael Greif in his tight production builds a vivid sense of a story unfolding simultaneously in the suburbs of Anyplace, America, and in cyberspace. Social media interfaces are splashed all over the panels of David Korins' set, with the enveloping blanket of Peter Nigrini's projections, Japhy Weideman's lighting and sound designer Nevin Steinberg's cacophonous chatter combining to illustrate how a tiny seed of information can be artificially inflated by an avalanche of uninformed opinion.

The eventual conflict with Alana and Jared (both of them portrayed in funny performances with a serrated edge) that precipitates Evan's exposure seems somewhat manufactured, but that's more of a flaw in the writing than in the acting or direction. However, Levenson's book generally is sensitive and psychologically sound, always knowing when to put on the brakes before it veers too far into simplistic Glee-type platitudes. The arc of Evan's journey is genuinely moving, but there's poignancy also in the way Connor's parents and sister bloom as Evan becomes a surrogate for their lost family member.

The creation of an idealized version of antisocial Connor is amusingly bittersweet in fantasy scenes in which Evan interacts with the dead youth's ghost. The song "Sincerely, Me," in which Faist's Connor becomes a different person, with Evan and Jared vying to control his voice, is a witty interlude, complemented by choreographer Danny Mefford's teen-appropriate dance moves.

The show also strikes chords (evident in the audible sniffling among the audience) with its touching depiction of the sadness of divorce — both for children feeling the lingering sting of abandonment and for their parents, dealing with guilt and anxiety. Jones, who was a delight in the recent Broadway revival of Pippin, is warm and tender as Evan's mother, at her loveliest in the song "So Big/So Small." Reliving the final moment of marital separation and its crushing fears, she sings in a voice with flute-like echoes of Joni Mitchell: "And I knew I'd come up short a million different ways/And I did, and I do, and I will." Her hurt when she discovers the extent to which Evan has been "adopted" by the well-heeled Murphys is palpable.

For a show centered so firmly on a young male protagonist, the integrity of the performances by the women — Jones; Thompson as Connor's mother, desperate to believe; and Dreyfuss, so grounded and yet sweetly vulnerable — provides a robust female perspective.

The opening number, "Anybody Have a Map?," in which the story's two mothers confess their struggle to understand and help their sons, feels like a warmup for the musical’s true opener, "Waving Through a Window," which accesses Evan's solitary world. Sung by Platt in a clear, confident voice that crests into light falsetto at just the right moments for maximum effect, the number is a ready-made anthem for the teen outsider. If the lyrics overall are often merely serviceable, the gentle pop-rock score is consistently easy on the ear, with vibrant orchestrations from Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton). Given the increasing rarity of original mainstream musicals not based on an existing source, there’s much to appreciate here.

The beating heart of the show is Platt's achingly felt performance as Evan. There's never a moment where you doubt the private hell this kid is going through, on or off his meds, or the fumbling need that makes him dig himself deeper and deeper into trouble. More important, despite the number of people wounded in the process, you never judge him for the mistakes he makes on the path to self-knowledge, which is a tribute both to the actor and to the writers of this modest but winning musical.

Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York
Cast: Ben Platt, Rachel Bay Jones, Laura Dreyfuss, John Dossett, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mike Faist, Kristolyn Lloyd, Will Roland
Director: Michael Greif
Book: Steven Levenson
Music & lyrics: Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Emily Rebholz
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Music director: Ben Cohn
Music supervisor & orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire
Choreographer: Danny Mefford
Presented by Second Stage Theatre, in association with Stacey Mindich Productions