insightful in-depth reviews

cogency
20, Dec 2016
Ben Platt as Evan Hansen, photo by Matthew Murphy

Dear Evan Hansen waving through a window

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Dear Evan Hansen. Music & lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, book by Steven Levenson. Michael Greif directed. Music Box Theatre, New York.
 

Very few Broadway musicals are original creations — not based on a previous book, play or movie. Dear Evan Hansen is such a rarity, and a supreme example of the genre.

When Benj Pasek was a student at Friends’ Central high school in Philadelphia, one of his schoolmates died unexpectedly. The school community rallied in support for the dead child’s family and friends. Remembering that incident, Pasek came up with the plot for Dear Evan Hansen.

He and his college buddy and songwriting partner Justin Paul collaborated on words and music while Steven Levenson wrote the book.

The title character is a socially anxious high school senior who was acquainted with a classmate named Connor who, midway in Act I, commits suicide. A letter is found, addressed “Dear Evan Hansen” and signed “Me” which everyone assumes to be the suicide’s farewell message. Actually, though, it was a letter written by Evan to himself as a positive attempt at self-assurance, and Connor grabbed it and used it to mock Evan.

Evan has been terrified about what others will think of him. Now he sees everyone sympathize with him because he supposedly lost his best friend; Connor’s parents embrace Evan as if he were family; and support groups make Evan their poster boy. The teenager accepts credit for a relationship that never existed, and he exploits it. This is an experience Evan never dreamed he could have —- and he is internally torn.

The show basically is about how the person you project to the world is not the real you. It is emotionally compelling and it moves your guts.

Pasek and Paul provided heartfelt music. Their 2012 small musical Dog Fight was clever and their songs for A Christmas Story won them more attention. Now at age 31 they’ve emerged as the hottest songwriting team of our day, and they wrote for the film La La Land. Their highlights here include “Waving Through a Window” where Evan complains of feeling invisible, “For Forever,” a ballad about friendship, and “Only Us,” a duet for Evan and his girlfriend.

Ben Platt (only age 22) is superb as the insecure and endearing Evan Hansen, glancing downward, fidgeting, pulling at his sleeve, but never overdoing it. His voice soars on spectacular high notes while trembling during his introspective thoughts. His performance is easily the best by anyone in a Broadway musical this year.

Rachel Bay Jones is heartbreaking as Evan Hansen’s single mother Heidi. Laura Dreyfuss is very appealing as Connor’s sister who becomes Evan’s girlfriend. Jennifer Thompson and Michael Park are excellent as Connor’s distraught parents, while Mike Faist nails the part of the troubled Connor. Kristolyn Lloyd as the over-achieving outsider Alana Beck, and Will Roland as Evan’s nerdy friend Jared are both excellent.

The set by David Korins ingeniously displays flashing images from social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Michael Greif shows his expertise as the director.