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A CurtainUp Review
Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway
By Elyse Sommer
Bottom Line: With its original team back for the move, it's settled very nicely into the Music Box on 45th Street. The staging has been expanded to fit the larger stage and theater, happily without succumbing to the over amplification an all-too-common feature of big Broadway musicals.
Ben Platt who was such a terrific Evan last spring is even better. A sure bet for the Best Actor in a Musical Tony award.
The rest of the cast is again excellent. That goes for Michael Park, who played Larry Murphy in the DC premiere, skipped the 2nd Stage production to be in Tuck Everlasting, and is now back.
Given all the above, everything I said when I reviewed the show last May holds. What follows is therefore a slightly revised reprise of that review.
Dear Evan Henson's double dysfunctional family story focuses on a seriously disturbed, painfully unsocialized high school senior whose self-mage boosting letter assignment from his never seen shrink explodes in constantly unexpected and wonderfully theatrical ways — in Evan's school, his home as well as that of an even more seriously disturbed outlier, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist).
Fun Home and the Pulitzer Prize winning Next to Normal (also directed by Michael Greif and initially at 2nd Stage), have paved the way musicals to succeed despite being short on the feel-good factor, hummable songs and peppy choreography. In Dear Evan Hansen, we also have social media playing an important role in giving the story its authenticity. Smart phones, laptops and the internet are certainly as second nature to the parents and grandparents who will relate to the show as well as Evan's contemporaries.
Playwright Steven Levenson, whose gift for stories buoyed by fully realized characters were displayed in previous productions, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin and The Language of Trees, is equally adept at providing songwriter-lyricist Benj Pasek & Justin Paul with book that integrates his script with their accomplished story propelling songs. As directed by Michael Greif, and with Ben Platt and the entire cast, the result is an emotionally potent, sad but also funny take on life in the social media age.
Levenson uses one of those 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 getting into the wrong hands might sound contrived and overly plot heavy, more suited to a straight play than a musical. But everything is remarkably believable and the songwriting team once again demonstrates 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 the other seven characters' story as Evan's. 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 Connor's parents (Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park) 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 two other outlier students Jared Kleinman (Will Roland) and Alana Beck (Kristolyn Loyd). Though both tend to be more over-the-top than the rest of the characters, they're also very funny. As for Evan's involvement with Jared and Alana's project, yes, he goes along with the lie, succumbing 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).
The lie about the title letter escalates into a heart-stirring, highly original and believable exploration of a society with an alarming teen suicide rate, drug addiction, and social media's ability to be supportive but also damaging. The recent longer and wider-reaching effects of fake news on social media sites, have added an all too timely note to these teen agers' Connor Project. A similar ratcheted up timeliness applies to the scene in which Evan's over-worked and underpaid mom expresses her resentment of the Murphys firmer grip on the middle class life.
Pasek and Paul's score is sophisticated and the minimally rhymed lyrics transition well 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 conflicts of the characters: Feeling invisible ("Waving Through a Window"), expressing grief ("Requiem") or fear about passing through life unnoticed ("Disappear").
All the actors get to demonstrate their vocal strengths, with a special bravo 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. He captures Evan's speech and physical tics without overdoing the latter. All in all, hiss Evan is funny, foolish and, ultimately, utterly endearing. And his fine tenor voice does full justice to the complex songs.
Though a choreographer (Danny Mefford) is listed, don't look for foot-tapping dance numbers here. The emphasis 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. The rest of the design team does equally commendable work.
If the response of the audience at the press preview I attended is any indication, Dear Evan Hansen is a hit.
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Dear Evan Hansen
Book by Steven Levenson
Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Choreography by Danny Mefford
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Ben Platt (Evan),Laura Dreyfuss (Zoe Murphy), Mike Faist (Connor Murphy), Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi Hansen), Will Roland (Jared Kleinman), Jennifer Laura Thompson (Cynthia Murphy), Michael Park (Larry Murphy), Kristolyn Lloyd (Alana Bek)
Scenic design by David Korins
Costume design by Emily Rebholz
Lighting design by Japhy Weideman
Sound design by Nevin Steinberg
Projection design by Peter Nigrini
Musicl director: Ben Cohn
Music supervisor & Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire
Vocal Arrangements: Justin Paul
Music Coordinator: Michael Keller
Hair: David Brian Brown
Stage Manager: Judith Schoenfeld
Running time: Approx 2 hour and 30 minutes includes 1 intermission.
Music Box Theatre 239 West 45th St 212-239-6200
from 11/14/16; opening 12/04/16.
Re-REviewed by Elyse Sommer at 12/03/16 press matinee
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