Dear Evan Hansen

By Nancy Salz – December 17, 2016
Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen (photo (c) Margot Schulman)

Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen (photo (c) Margot Schulman)

What just happened?

One minute I was taking my seat next to a teenage boy (one of dozens in the audience at what’s typically a blue-haired-lady matinee) and asking his help to decipher the social media messages projected onto the scenery flats – and the next I was screaming my head-off (along with the rest of the audience) for Ben Platt’s opening song in Dear Evan Hansen.

Electrifying barely covers it. We dream of moments like this in the musical theatre where a character – in this case a self-loathing, cowering, lost, high school boy – and a song, “Waving Through a Window,” and a passionate talent like Ben Platt come together to grab your emotions. You don’t know whether to cheer the performance as a theatre-goer or just surrender to Evan’s pain. Platt has a voice that can switch into falsetto seamlessly and express his sadness through song. Even though the show had received raves, I wasn’t prepared for this moment. Normally theatre goers bemoan overly miked Broadway performances. In Dear Evan Hansen, a show of today, it’s mandatory. The sound design, by Nevin Steinberg, surrounds you and brings you into Evan Hansen’s mixed up, clumsy world.

The opening scene is tame compared to the mess that Evan soon creates. He lives with his single mother (a dramatic and moving Rachel Bay Jones) whose job keeps her away often and fuels Evan’s feeling of rejection and anger. His father deserted the family years before. He has no school friends. His mother suggests that he ask his class mates to sign a cast he has on his arm as the result of a fall from a tree.

Evan’s psychiatrist has suggested that he write himself pep letters to boost his ego and relieve his sadness. He writes them on his computer at home, starting with the greeting “Dear Evan Hansen” and brings the computer to school one day to print a letter out. For some reason he forgets the letter in the printer and the school bully, a very disturbed Connor Murphy (played scarily by Mike Faist) finds it and taunts Evan. Nevertheless, in big bold letters, he autographs Evan’s cast.

We soon learn that Connor has killed himself. When Connor’s parents (touchingly played by Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson), on the brink of divorce, find the letter on Connor’s body, they assume that Connor and Evan were friends. To make them feel better, Evan lies about the friendship – and then lies and lies and lies. One school mate, Jared Kleinman (a mean, funny Will Roland), simultaneously bullies him and eggs on his lies as the school is in mourning for Connor and now want to be friends with Connor’s only friend. A sanctimonious classmate, Alana, (terrifically played by Kristolyn Lloyd) helps Evan found a project to honor Connor. And Connor’s sister Zoe (an endearing Laura Dreyfuss) formerly an out-of-reach crush for Evan, starts to befriend him.

Startling things happen to everyone because of Evan’s lies – including Evan. You wonder when it’s all going to unravel. You know it will. You just don’t know how.

Make no mistake, even surrounded with wonderful co-stars and a sixteen voice, unseen chorus that heightens the drama, this is Ben Platt’s show. He was Evan at its premiere at Washington’s Arena Stage and in its award-winning off-Broadway production. The producers will be hard-pressed when the time comes to replace him. He’s as fine an actor as he is a singer. How many people can sing and sob at the same time?

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are responsible for the songs that so brilliantly convey character and emotion. Steven Levenson wrote the tight, poignant book, finding and bringing to life his own inner Evan. Alex Lacamoire (of Hamilton fame) supervised the orchestrations and wrote additional arrangements. Danny Mefford choreographed and Michael Greif (of Rent and Next to Normal) directed. Ben Cohn is the music director of a nine piece orchestra that includes two guitars.

In 1969 the musical group The Who introduced us to Tommy, an isolated boy in their rock opera recording of the same name and often revived musical. Tommy sang …

“See me. Feel me. Touch me. Heal me.”

 Nearly fifty years later we have Evan, a similarly lost young man.

“On the outside always looking in. Will I ever be more than I’ve always been? I’m waving through a window. Can anybody see? Is anybody waving back at me?”

These universal feelings should ensure a long, long run for Dear Evan Hansen, a superbly created and executed musical of our time.

 

Book by Steven Levenson, Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, Directed by Michael Greif, Music Supervision, Orchestrations and Additional Arrangements by Alex Lacamoire, Choreography by Danny Mefford, Scenic Design by David Korins, Projection Design by Peter Nigrini, Costume Design by Emily Rebholz, Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman, Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg.

Starring Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mike Faist, Michael Park, Will Roland, Kristolyn Lloyd.