Urgent concerns about depressed and overanxious teens, well-intentioned but powerless parents, and the difficulty of achieving any kind of real emotional connection at a time of overwhelming social media run like electric currents through the smart, deeply felt and altogether extraordinary new musical Dear Evan Hansen, which has opened on Broadway following an acclaimed Off-Broadway run at Second Stage earlier this year.
Ben Platt (of Pitch Perfect fame) plays the title character, a high-school loner who can barely bring himself to talk to his fellow students, let alone his longtime crush (Laura Dreyfuss). Evan’s busy single mother (Rachel Bay Jones) wants to help him but is at a loss for solutions and has little time to watch over him because of her job. At present, Evan is seeing a psychiatrist, who has Evan writing letters to himself (i.e. “Dear Evan Hansen”) so that he can indirectly express his emotions.
A chance encounter between Evan and Connor (Mike Faist), a troubled fellow student, sparks an unpredictable chain of events that leads to Evan perpetuating a well-intentioned lie to Connor’s parents (Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park) and the entire study body. In the process, he slowly comes out of his shell and becomes, in the words of one character, “almost popular.” Inevitably, the situation finally explodes and Evan must reveal the truth. That’s as specific as I can be without spoiling the intricate plot.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the young and extremely promising songwriting duo who previously penned the fine scores of Dog Fight and A Christmas Story and more recently wrote songs for the acclaimed movie musical La La Land, have crafted a haunting soft rock score. Steven Levenson’s book balances captivating storytelling and complex characters with meditations on social interaction, technology and the breakdown of the traditional family unit. The tone alternates between being satirical, gentle and altogether emotionally wrenching.
Michael Greif, whose best work as a director includes boundary-pushing musicals like Rent and Next to Normal, presents a tight and compelling production built around finely textured ensemble acting and a seamless visual design of shifting panels and floating video imagery.
Platt gives one of the most vulnerable and shaded performances I’ve ever seen, and I’m willing to bet you’ll feel the same way about it. As portrayed by Platt, Evan Hansen is terrified, enigmatic, seemingly harmless, and completely believable and identifiable. Virtually every member of the small cast poignantly reveals their character to be unsure and hiding overwhelming pain.
Except for a few comical and romantic moments, this is a serious and often uncomfortable portrait of contemporary domestic life. It is meant for teens, parents and virtually anyone who has identified as an outsider.