'Dear Evan Hansen': Theater Review

Dear Evan Hansen_Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Matthew Murphy
A tearjerker that earns every sob.

Ben Platt stars as a painfully insecure teenage outsider whose life is transformed by an inadvertent lie in this new emo-musical with a score by 'La La Land' lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

The cacophonous echo chamber of social media, with all its attendant rewards and perils of instant recognition or scathing judgment, is given forceful shape in Dear Evan Hansen. A smart, soulful depiction of teen solitude graced by both gentle humor and raw feeling, this original musical graduates to Broadway after being honed in two earlier productions, scaling up its physical dimensions without sacrificing its piercing intimacy. At its center is Pitch Perfect star Ben Platt as the painfully awkward 17-year-old title character, giving a deeply affecting performance that's also an extraordinary display of sustained emotional intensity. Bring Kleenex.

The show was already impressive in its lauded off-Broadway premiere at Second Stage Theatre earlier this year, directed with as much vitality as sensitivity by Michael Greif. But the characterizations now seem even more fully lived-in and the connective tissue among the ensemble — whether playing biological or adoptive family, young lovers or high school acquaintances thrust into an uneasy friendship of convenience — has genuine sparks. The entire cast of that earlier production returns minus one, with Michael Park reprising the role he originated in 2015 at Arena Stage in D.C.

The title refers to an assignment from Evan's unseen therapist to pen a motivational letter to himself each day, aimed to foster a sunnier outlook from the depressed high school senior. His divorced mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones) is a hospital nurse's aide taking night classes to become a paralegal, and the warmth and determined cheerfulness she shows toward her son in their interactions are tempered by a quiet undercurrent of guilt over how little time she gets to spend with him. There's real devotion behind her upbeat enquiries about his well-being, and whether he's OK for refills on his anti-anxiety meds, though while the affection is clearly reciprocated, there's also the inescapable divide of a troubled adolescent retreating further into self-punishing solitude.

Platt exposes that vulnerability from the outset, bursting into nervous hyper-babble even in agitated conversations with himself as he agonizes over his abortive attempts to talk to the girl he likes at school, Zoe Murphy (Laura Dreyfuss). But the most searing early depiction of his torment comes in a gorgeous first-act song that builds into a legitimate showstopper, "Waving Through a Window," in which Evan sings about being trapped inside his protective shell gazing out. Platt's periodic flights in the number into the lightest of falsettos make it almost unbearably tender, and the actor's vocal technique is as noteworthy as his wrenching honesty in the role.

Composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, unsurprisingly, have broken into film since this show was first seen, writing the lyrics to Justin Hurwitz's melancholy tunes for La La Land, as well as a song for Trolls. What's perhaps most distinctive about their melodic emo-pop score for Dear Evan Hansen is how beautifully it captures the peaks and valleys of adolescence, in the thoughtful lyrics and in the music itself, given expressive orchestrations by Hamilton Tony winner Alex Lacamoire. Playwright Steven Levenson matches the musical components beat for beat in his terrific book, which sets up with persuasive conviction what could easily have been a contrived premise.

The story hinges on a misunderstanding that spirals out of control when Zoe's messed-up older brother Connor (Mike Faist) takes his own life and one of Evan's bleaker self-help letters is found in his possession. When it's interpreted as a suicide note written to Evan, he makes stuttering attempts to correct the mistake with Connor's shell-shocked parents, Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and Larry (Park). But the anguished need of Cynthia, in particular, to understand her dead son's despair makes Evan impulsively endorse the lie, which soon takes on a life of its own as he fabricates details of a close secret friendship with Connor.

Evan gets drawn into the Murphy family, helping them to heal. He gains a more present surrogate mother in Cynthia, and a father figure in the slowly thawing corporate lawyer Larry, something Evan has lacked since his own dad took off when he was 7. He also stumbles into a closeness that escalates into romance with Zoe, who needs to believe that her brother wasn't just a vessel of hate and anger.

But when the story spreads beyond that unit, its eventual exposure becomes more inevitable, placing Evan in a precarious situation. This happens through Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd), an overachieving student who appoints herself mourner-in-chief despite barely having known Connor. "Oh, my God," she tells his parents. "He was one of my closest acquaintances." Starting with basic social-media outreach, she pushes the confused, pliable Evan to dig himself in deeper and deeper with a school memorial, a blog and an educational website for other teens at risk. The contagion of every ping that signals another like, share, post or retweet becomes a sardonic undercurrent for the disproportionate noise that other people's tragedies can generate in the social-media age. That acquires a more dangerous edge when Connor's parents land in the firing line of vicious backlash.

The scary explosion of cyberspace attention is conveyed in the design work, as David Korins' simple set panels are blitzed with social-media interfaces and endlessly multiplying messages via Peter Nigrini's projections, while Japhy Weideman's precision-focused lighting expertly modulates the mood. These elements, so essential to the story's impact, are now even more effective on the larger stage.

Evan's sole confidant in all this is Jared Kleinman (Will Roland), a snarky classmate who regards Evan as a chronic loser, and insists on clarifying that he's a "family friend." Jared helps him cook up a fake, backdated email correspondence with Connor that brings the dead boy into their exchanges in the infectious number, "Sincerely, Me." This is a musical with minimal dance elements, but choreographer Danny Mefford supplies the three guys with amusingly bouncy, wannabe-cool moves that inject levity right where it's needed. Connor's "ghost" also becomes someone to whom Evan can air his fears, and one of the distinctions of Levenson's book is its skill in showing the extent to which all the teenage characters — not just Evan and Connor, but also Alana, Jared and even the brittle but fragile Zoe — are alone.

Across the board, the ensemble is superb, each of them registering rich moments of emotional complexity. But the show's secret weapon, matching Platt all the way, is the wonderful Jones as Evan's frayed but loving mother. Her mortification when she discovers the degree to which her role has been usurped by the Murphys is devastating, as is her recognition of her own failure to see the depths of Evan's unhappiness. The audible sniffles and sobs among the audience reach a peak in her exquisite song "So Big/So Small," in which she recounts to Evan the moment when his father left, and her resulting panic at being left to navigate parenthood solo, without a map. The show captures the sorrow of abandonment for both spouse and child to tremendously moving effect.

Of course the heart of the production is Platt, who has found a career-making breakout role that he steers through every dizzying turn of bottomless desolation, cautious elation and cold-sweat terror. Every fidgeting move and downcast glance, every evasive answer or pained grimace, every terminally apologetic bit of body language feels achingly real, warmed by self-effacing humor and an underlying sweetness that never cloys. That makes it easy to forgive Evan's role in the deception, even as he struggles to forgive himself. It's a performance to savor, and one that will speak powerfully to young audiences in particular.

Venue: Music Box, New York
Cast: Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mike Faist, Michael Park, Will Roland, Kristolyn Lloyd
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
Executive producers: Wendy Orshan, Jeffrey M. Wilson
Presented by Stacey Mindich, Mickey Lidell, Hunter Arnold, Caiola Productions, Double Gemini Productions, Fakston Productions, Roy Furman, Harris Karma Productions, On Your Marks Group, Darren Bagert, Roger & William Berlind, Bob Boyett, Colin Callendar, Caitlin Clements, Freddy DeMann, Dante Di Loreto, Bonnie & Kenneth Feld, FickStern Productions, Eric & Marci Gardiner, Robert Greenblatt, Jere Harris & Darren DeVerna, The John Gore Organization, Mike Kriak, Arielle Tepper Madover, David Mirvish, Eva Price, Zeilinger Productions, Adam Zotovich, Ambassador Theatre Group, Independent Presenters Network, The Shubert Organization, in association with Arena Stage, Second Stage Theatre