Review: In ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ a Lonely Teenager, a Viral Lie and a Breakout Star
“As the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” a lonely teenager who inadvertently becomes a social media sensation and a symbol of the kindness that is often cruelly absent in high school hallways, the marvelous young actor Ben Platt is giving a performance that’s not likely to be bettered on Broadway this season.
What’s more, this gorgeous heartbreaker of a musical, which opened at the Music Box Theater on Sunday, has grown in emotional potency during its journey to the big leagues, after first being produced in Washington and Off Broadway. Rarely – scratch that — never have I heard so many stifled sobs and sniffles in the theater.
For those allergic to synthetic sentiment, rest assured that the show, with a haunting score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the coming movie musical “La La Land,” for which they wrote the lyrics, is already generating Oscar buzz), matched by a book of equal sensitivity by Steven Levenson, doesn’t sledgehammer home its affecting story. On the contrary, the musical finds endless nuances in the relationships among its characters, and makes room for some leavening humor, too. It is also the rare Broadway musical not derived from or inspired by some other source, which is refreshing in itself.
Evan Hansen, at first glance, may appear to be a stock figure: the misfit kid who’s too shy make friends and eats lunch in the cafeteria alone. But Mr. Platt’s remarkable performance instantly scrubs free any trace of the generic.
His Evan is a startling jumble of exposed nerve endings. His eyes blink in continual embarrassment at the twisted pretzels of words that tumble from his mouth whenever he has to interact socially, which isn’t often. He quails at the thought of having to make small talk with a pizza delivery guy. Underneath the thick layers of insecurity, however, Mr. Platt transmits the yearning heart and the desperation for affection — or even just attention — that ultimately gets Evan into deep trouble.
The fateful encounter that sets the plot in motion takes place when Evan is in the computer room at school, printing out one of the daily pep-talk letters to himself that his therapist has advised him to write. It’s snatched up by another loner, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), but one with a mean streak. He snickers, stuffs it in his pocket and then, noticing that no one has signed the cast on Evan’s broken arm, mockingly scrawls his name across it in giant letters.
But we soon learn that Connor’s psychological travails run deeper than Evan’s. Not long after this unpleasant incident, Connor kills himself. And when his family finds Evan’s letter, they naturally assume it was written by Connor to his friend. In their bewilderment and sadness they reach out to him, hoping he can shed some light on why their son had become so remote and unhappy.
Although Evan tries to stutter out the truth, ultimately he cannot bear to tell them the real provenance of the letter, for reasons both compassionate — he can sense how dearly they want to believe Connor was not just the alienated kid he seemed to be — and self-serving. Evan has long had a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss). His growing closeness to Connor’s parents — Larry (Michael Park) and Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson) — naturally draws Zoe nearer to him.
Evan’s troubles are compounded when news of the (fake) friendship spreads at school. An ambitious fellow student, Alana, played with the bossy eagerness of a classic overachiever by Kristolyn Lloyd, decides to start a fund in Connor’s name. When Evan is talked into giving a speech at an assembly, as the co-president of what Alana has called the Connor Project, his talk becomes a social media sensation. “Dear Evan Hansen” reflects how such platforms have become both a way of advocating for good and inspiring collective engagement, but it also suggests that viral movements may be mere mirages, and can spiral out of control, potentially doing more damage than good. (The set, by David Korins, is dominated by a series of screens that flash spasmodically with images of posts and tweets when the Connor Project spreads like a wildfire.)
As Evan becomes more entangled in his deceptions, Mr. Platt’s performance grows richer and more wrenching. We see how seductive Evan finds this newfound attention, but also how the knowledge of his duplicity is eating away at him. Even as he basks in a new confidence, he senses — as we do — part of his soul slipping away.
Under the superb direction of the veteran Michael Greif, the show has been subtly refined, its brasher comedy softened, and the performances have grown in delicacy. Rachel Bay Jones is immensely touching as Evan’s mother, who has raised him by herself and grows mournful as she sees her son entering the orbit of another family.
Mr. Park and Ms. Thompson are likewise excellent, indicating how bringing Evan into their lives helps heal their wounds, which, of course, only compounds his guilt. As Zoe, who at first resents the picture of her brother as a lonely martyr — he was nothing but nasty to her — Ms. Dreyfuss gives a sensitive, altogether lovely performance. And as Jared, Evan’s only friend, Will Roland provides nice injections of snarky humor, as he is corralled into helping Evan hide the truth by fabricating a series of emails.
Mr. Paul and Mr. Pasek’s score is woven with unusual seamlessness into Mr. Levenson’s book. And while the majority of the songs are soft-spoken, reflective ballads, with guitar and strings leading the way (there’s no brass in the small orchestra), they are varied and gently melodic, each opening up a window that gives a new perspective on the characters and their predicaments. Particularly memorable is the soaring anthem that closes the first act, and is reprised in the second, “You Will Be Found,” which becomes one of the rallying cries for the social media movement that the death of Connor — and Evan’s speech about him — incites.
Naturally, the story of a teenage suicide and a lonely young man caught up in a web of self-devised deception has its sad aspects. But “Dear Evan Hansen” is anything but a downer; the feelings it stirs are cathartic expressions of a healthy compassion for Evan’s efforts to do good, and his anguish that he may be causing more trouble than he can cure.
The musical is ideal for families looking for something yeastier and more complex than the usual sugary diversions. But then it should also appeal to just about anyone who has ever felt, at some point in life, that he or she was trapped “on the outside looking in,” as one lyric has it. Which is just about everybody with a beating heart.” (NY Times)
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— NEW YORK TIMES