A CurtainUp Review
Dear Evan Hansen
By Elyse Sommer
This thoroughly of the social media age show is short on the feel-good factor that comes with a catchy score and lots of peppy choreography. However, like Fun Home as well as the Pulitzer Prize winning Next to Normal (also directed by Michael Greif and initially at 2nd Stage), it may well transfer to Broadway. In the meantime, the current Off-Broadway premiere production is definitely not a high school musical, but for all ages. In fact, I sat next to a young woman of about twenty who was there at the urging of her parents who at intermission told me she loved it as much as they did. I also overheard an older 2nd Stage member say she had come back for a second time to bring her grandchildren.
Playwright Steven Levenson, whose gift for stories buoyed by fully realized characters was displayed prevously in The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin and The Language of Trees, proves himself equally adept at providing the songwriting lyricist team of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul with a book that integrates his script with their accomplished story propelling songs. As directed by Michael Greif, and with a star-making lead performance by Ben Platt and a splendid supporting cast, the result is an emotionally potent, sad but also funny take on life in the social media age.
Levenson uses one of the self-image boosting letters Evan's shrink assigned him to write to himself to set the plot in motion. The multiple dramatic events prompted by that "Dear Evan Hansen" letter's getting into the wrong hands might could easily be contrived and overly plot heavy, more suited to a straight play than a musical. But everything is remarkably believable and these song writers once again demonstrate that dark stories can very effectively deepen their characters' trajectories with singing as well as dialogue.
I'm not giving too much away, when I tell you that this is as much about the other seven characters as Evan. To begin with, there's the fact that Evan broke his arm falling out of a tree during the summer and the only one signing his cast when he returns to school is another and more deeply disturbed senior, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist). But Connor also gets a hold of Evan's printout of his "Dear Evan" letter so that it ends up being misconstrued by his parents (Jennifer Laura Thompson and John Dossett) as written by him before his final act of destructive behavior.
That misplaced and misinterpreted letter fills a need for Cynthia and Larry Murphy, and eventually even Connor's skeptical sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) on whom Evan has a crush. It also seeds a social media boomlet instigated by Jared Kleinman (Will Roland) and Alana Beck (Kristolyn Loyd), two other outlier students — and, yes, Evan's going along with the lie as he , succumbs to being a somebody and enjoying the affection of a family more available to him than his loving but too busy divorced mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones).
That lie about the title letter escalates into a heart-stirring, highly original and believable exploration of a society with an alarming increase in teen suicides, an epidemic of drug addiction, and social media's ability to be supportive but also damaging. Pasek and Paul's score is sophisticated and the minimally rhymed lyrics transition smoothly in and out of the script. The first act's finale, "You Will Be Found," for all its typical pop flavor also works beautifully to set the stage for the increasingly dark second act. The lyrics throughout take us into the characters conflicts: Feeling invisible ("Waving Through a Window"), expressing grief ("Requiem"), or fear about passing through life unnoticed ("Disappear").
All members of the excellent cast get to demonstrate their vocal strengths, with a special shout-out due to Rachel Bay Jones for her big solo So Big/So Small." But, as already stated, this is Ben Platt's super star turn both in terms of acting and singing. The way he captures Evan's speech and his physical tics is astounding. His Evan is funny, foolish and, ultimately, utterly endearing. And he sings the complex songs beautifully!
Though a choreographer (Danny Mefford) is listed, don't look for foot-tapping dance numbers here. The emphasis here is on Michael Greif's flair for theatricalizing character-driven musicals. The 8-piece orchestra fits perfectly in the upper level of David Korin's simple but effective set. Peter Nigrini's projections underscore the influence of life that has us always on line but too often emotionally disconnected.
If rumors of a Broadway transfer turn into reality, both the book and some of the lyrics could use some rethinking, which was also the case for Next to Normal. However, the cast, and most especially, Ben Platt, should definitely come along.