New York City Theater
"Dear Evan Hansen"
Second Stage Theater
Just in time. The end-of-season “Dear Evan Hansen” is a gem, a significant and startling musical. Steven Levenson’s book, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music and lyrics and Danny Mefford’s choreography create a moving piece about how youths live today. It’s directed subtly and unsentimentally by Michael Greif, who also guided “Rent” and “Next to Normal,” both of which “Hansen” resembles in its depiction of troubled youth.
It’s a fit coda to the season’s opening, the smash “Hamilton.” Where the latter deals with how young immigrants built this country, “Hansen” concerns itself with the ambiguous aftermath of where youths are today. Quill pens and ink have morphed into social media, words have morphed into symbols, action has morphed into reticence.
High school senior Evan Hansen is so terribly, clinically shy that he’d rather go hungry than deal face to face with a food deliverer. His divorced mother, loaded with a day job and night classes, is, regretfully, too busy to properly take care of him. To compensate, his therapist has him compose a daily letter to himself, detailing his feelings, his hopes.
One such letter is picked up by fellow student Connor Murphy, a goth figure, also an outsider, also without friends. When, later, Connor commits suicide, his parents find Evan’s letter. Thinking it shows that their son had friends after all – why else write so intimately to Evan? – they want to coddle Evan, to welcome him into their family which includes their daughter Zoe, on whom Evan has a crush.
It’s a dilemma: tell the truth and destroy the parents’ joy that Connor was not without friends? Or lie and, thus, give comfort to the grieving couple?
Projections of social media that’s really not social – Facebook and the like -- traverse the set’s panels. Not being able to communicate in person, these teens are comfortable and safe in their anonymity until they come together for a mutual cause, not in the league with founding a nation but important nevertheless.
As Evan, Ben Platt is priceless. Head down, eyes on the floor, pulling at his clothing, muttering words as if to get them over with, fighting oblivion and loneliness, Platt brilliantly embodies contemporary youths in search of themselves. In one of the show’s many pertinent songs, he sings “Waving through a window / Can anyone see / Is anyone waving back at me?” The actor shows the generous heart as well as the quick mind of a decent, conflicted young man.
As his hard-working mom, Rachel Bay Jones is loving, frustrated, confused, protective, her concluding scene a moving cry for forgiveness. John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson are sympathetic as the grieving parents, with Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and Mike Faist as the rebellious Connor. Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland are amusingly pushy as fellow students.
The design team’s accomplishments further the idea of humans vs. technology: David Korins’ scenery, Japhy Weideman’s lighting, Peter Nigrini’s projections, Nevin Steinberg’s sound and Emily Rebholz’s costumes are notable.
“No one deserves to be forgotten / No one deserves to fade away,” goes one lyric. It’s a sentiment as applicable to the singular individual of “Dear Evan Hansen” as it is to the band of feuding but ultimately communal brothers in “Hamilton.”
--David A. Rosenberg
May 12, 2016