New York City Theater
"Dear Evan Hansen"
Music Box Theater
It doesn’t happen often. Along comes a show that hits a home run, stirring the mind, piercing the heart and feeding the soul. Such is “Dear Evan Hansen,” the gutsy musical that moved from off- to on-Broadway with all its brilliance intact.
It’s no less intimate in a bigger space as it tells the sad, noble, blessedly complex story of a misfit high school boy faced with dilemmas. Not the least of the show’s virtues is a bravura performance by Ben Platt, a performance so true, so blistering, so encompassing that you have that rare feeling of going through his journey with him. It’s a memorable star turn.
Empathy is so strong it spreads to all the characters, all drawn with exactitude, all dovetailing one another. The show offers no easy answers, no simplistic wrap-ups and reconciliations. Rather, it’s all of a piece: Michael Greif’s subtle, unsentimental direction and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s soaring score amplify librettist Steven Levenson’s powerful narrative. From every angle, the elements dig not only into Evan’s psyche but the ambiguities of today’s youths who are struggling with the attractions and alarms of social media.
We first see clinically shy Evan in his room, dreading the arrival of a pizza deliverer with whom he might have to interact, nervously pulling at his shirt, not wanting to be touched, averting his eyes from the world. As instructed by his therapist, he’s writing a daily letter to himself: “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why. Because today, all you have to do is just be yourself.”
Being himself is a conundrum. With only two high school acquaintances, the eager Alana and the nerdy Jared, and a mother who works two jobs and is rarely home, Evan is “lost in the in-between.” Add a bully, the Goth-loving Connor Murphy, and the danger of falling into a void is palpable.
After Connor finds and won’t return Evan’s letter, the bully, friendless and alone, commits suicide. His distraught parents, believing Evan’s letter was written by Connor – showing that he had friends after all -- turn to Evan for solace. Should Evan lie, comforting the parents, or tell the truth, disillusioning them? Complicating matters, Evan has a crush on Zoe, the Murphys’ teen-age daughter.
As the quagmire gets deeper, the teens turn to Facebook and the like, communicating not person to person but via technology. (Peter Nigrni designed the exciting projections that traverse David Korins’ stark sets.)
But human beings, not IT gimmicks, are central to the evening. Platt is sensational as Evan, embodying contemporary youths in search of themselves, showing the generous heart as well as the quick mind of a decent, conflicted young man. In the plaintive “Waving Through a Window,” he sings “Can anyone see / Is anyone waving back to me?” Other titles are “Disappear” and “You Will be Found,” yet the show is amusing as well as sad.
Rachel Bay Jones is superb as Heidi Hansen, Evan’s mom. Loving and frustrated, protective and confused, her concluding number, “So Big / So Small,” is a moving cry for forgiveness. Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park imbue Connor’s parents with tension, while Mike Faist pulls no punches as the troubled Connor. Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland are hilariously pushy as fellow students. As Zoe, Laura Dreyfuss gives an annoyingly internal performance.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 20, 2016