Once in a while a new musical comes along with an original story, a book that exactly integrates song, and characters who achieve emotional intimacy with both the tale being told and the audience. When it also delivers a drop-dead, breakout lead performance one experiences what one hopes musical theater would always be. Such is the case with DEAR EVAN HANSEN, and an astonishing Ben Platt in title role, which comes to Broadway via Arena Stage in Washington DC, then from off-Broadway’s Second Stage.
Although DEAR EVAN HANSEN's sensibility of text and score has successful antecedents in NEXT TO NORMAL and FUN HOME, its story is uniquely disarming. Quirky and shy high school student Evan Hansen has a social panic anxiety condition, lives a lonely life in a single-parent home with mother struggling to make ends meet, and has no real friends at school. Evan takes medication and, as therapy to overcome his lack of connection with his peers (“I wish I mattered… I wish I was part of something”) he writes letters to himself. By chance, one of these “Dear Evan Hansen” letters is found on the body of his classmate Connor, a violence-prone misfit, who has committed suicide. Connor’s parents assume Evan and their son were best friends. Evan goes along, gaining popularity at school, and when a memorial speech he gives Connor goes viral, Evan becomes the social media poster child for troubled youth. Uncommon in musicals these days, the first act concludes leaving the audience legitimately wondering what will happen in the second.
At once a contemplation of identity and individual value, and a gentle commentary on how social media objectifies even the most personal of experiences, Evan’s story is beautifully rendered through a smart, keen book by Steven Levenson, and music and lyrics with Sondheim-like sophistication laced with a pop-folk cool by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The 14 songs cut to the emotional quick, right from the start. Just by the second number “Waving Through The Window”, Ben’s stirring lament of personal isolation, one gets those “goosebumps”, that catch in the throat: it’s impossible not to care about Evan - and his mother and the Connors. Director Michael Grief, who directed NEXT TO NORMAL, knows the psychological terrain of family dynamics well: his minimalist staging keeps the focus on the internal lives of the characters.
Scenic designer David Korins reinforces the internal by staging household scenes with few props - a twin bed for Evan’s bedroom, a kitchen table for the Connor house- but creates an external world, impersonal and technologically-driven, with a shifting collage of overlapping panels of Smartphone texts and weblinks. In the first act finale, “You Will Be Found’, the set explodes in a social media Tower of Babel, confronting Evan with the consequences of the untruth he has promulgated and unwanted celebrity.
The tiny cast of eight is individually and collectively first rate. Special shout-out to Mike Faist as the neurotic, dark-humored, suicidal Connor, and, for comedic relief, Will Roland, as Evan’s wise-ass, fellow high-schooler. Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan’s mother Heidi perfectly conveys the pain and frustration of a working, single mom with an “unusual” kid, bringing it all together in a searing ode “So Big/ So Small” before the finale.
Then there is Ben Platt, first seen on Broadway in THE BOOK OF MORMAN. He textures the role of Evan with engaging idiosyncrasies – sporadic stuttered speech, unique hand gestures, facial tics – which have a non-cloying, irresistible appeal. In a single performance, of a caliber and complexity not seen on Broadway since Neil Patrick Harris in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, Platt negotiates an amazing psychological journey. His is arguably the most demanding musical role – emotionally and vocally – on Broadway this season.
In the final scene, the claustrophobic world of social media gives way to a wide expense of blue sky: Evan begins to believe he matters. So, too, will this intimate treasure of a musical to anyone with a heart.
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