The title character in the musical Dear Evan Hansen is a clinically anxious high school student who is so friendless that he can’t get any classmates to sign the cast on his broken arm, except an even worse misfit named Connor. But then Connor commits suicide, and his death turns Evan’s life around.
In other hands, it might be difficult to suspend disbelief in the series of unlikely, near-satiric events at the heart of this original musical, which is now running Off-Broadway through the end of the month. But Dear Evan Hansen, which originated at Arena Stage, has become a sold-out hit, something of a cult favorite, with plans to transfer to Broadway. It’s easy to see why.
Composer/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose previous musicals include Dogfight and A Christmas Story, have fashioned a tuneful, affecting pop-rock score. Director Michael Greif, who has some experience with shows about adolescent angst (Rent, Next to Normal), has created a first-rate, resonant production. It’s worth pointing out that Team Evan Hansen includes Hamilton alumni David Korins as the set designer and Alex Lacamoire as the musical supervisor and orchestrator.
And the eight-member cast, all but two the same as the run at Arena Stage last year, offer some deep and credible performances, led by the extraordinary Ben Platt, who until now was best known as Benji the nerd in the Pitch Perfect movies.
Platt’s Evan Hansen speaks rapidly, face down, swallowing his words, as if assuming nobody would listen even if they were around to do so. His mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones) tries to help, but she is raising him on his own, and is rarely home these days; she works as a nurse and is studying to be a paralegal. When she is not around to feed him, Evan skips dinner because he is too intimidated to order in; he doesn’t want to deal with the delivery person. As he sings in “Waving Through the Window,” Pasek and Paul’s anthem for outcasts:
I’ve learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me.
Evan takes anti-anxiety medication and sees a therapist regularly. His therapist has given him an exercise to write a letter to himself that begins “Dear Evan Hansen. Today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.” But Evan is so pessimistic, and so frustrated at his inability to talk to Zoe, a girl he likes in his school, that the letter he writes to himself winds up downbeat, its only grace note a line of hopefulness about Zoe. Evan makes the mistake of printing out the letter in the school computer lab, where it’s discovered by Connor (Mike Faist), who happens to be Zoe’s brother. Connor, in characteristic crazy fashion, misconstrues Evan’s letter mentioning his sister as some kind of calculated attack on him, and pockets it.
Connor commits suicide shortly afterwards. His parents Larry and Cynthia Murphy discover the letter in his pocket. They make some natural assumptions – that it’s a suicide note he wrote to Evan.
“We didn’t know that you two were friends,” says Larry (John Dossett). “We didn’t think that Connor had any friends.” They weren’t and he didn’t. Evan tries to explain, but, as usual, he’s tongue-tied, and soon, responding to Larry and Cynthia’s desperation and grief, he just starts lying, claiming to be Connor’s best, albeit secret, friend. He does this, he says to himself, to help out the Murphys. But his fabricated friendship with Connor offers Evan tangible benefits – proximity to Zoe, and the gratitude of the Murphys, who invite him to dinner every night, start seeing him as their surrogate son.
The lie takes on a life of its own, amplified by social media — represented by Peter Nigrini’s sensory-overload projections of tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram feeds. It spins out of control into the world at large. I won’t give away the particulars, except to mention the ambitious Kickstarter campaign for “The Connor Project” (a sly allusion to the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention agency for LGBT youth, and the similar It Gets Better Project).
It is to the credit of the songwriters and book writer Steven Levenson that, beneath the fanciful plot, Dear Evan Hansen digs towards some insights into several aspects of human nature – not just adolescent insecurity, but the struggle of parenting, family dynamics, sibling resentment, the delayed effects of grief, the self-interest of altruism; the show acknowledges that even good people see a tragedy through the prism of their own needs, and sometimes use it to their own advantage.
This extends to the two classmates who come closest to being Evan’s actual friends, but are (like Evan, but in their own way) too much misfits to have any – Kristolyn Lloyd as Alana, who sees herself as a perky over-achiever, and Will Roland as the hilariously cynical Jared, who is both Evan’s sounding board and something of an antagonist. Jared could be seen as comic relief – he is blunt, and tasteless in his jokes. But this seems a reflection of his character rather than of his creators.
Many of the songs in the show are upfront about feelings, but Dear Evan Hansen is at its best when it’s indirect. The most memorable song for me was “To Break in a Glove,” where Larry is simply explaining to Evan how to accomplish the activity of the title; but it stands in for the time and effort it takes to nurture a relationship – something that Larry didn’t do with his son (or his son didn’t do with Larry), and that Evan and his unseen father never did.
I suspect that much of the widespread appeal of Dear Evan Hansen is that, realistically or not, the musical itself offers the kind of hope and reassurance that its characters seek – the Dear Evan Hansen Project.
Dear Evan Hansen is on stage at Second Stage Theater (305 W 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036, just west of Eighth Avenue) through May 29, 2016.
Tickets and details
Dear Evan Hansen. Book by Steven Levenson; Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; Directed by Michael Greif. Scenic design by David Korins, costume design by Emily Rebholz, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, projection design by Peter Nigrini, music direction by Ben Cohn, music supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire . Featuring Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Mike Faist, Rachel Bay Jones, Will Roland, Jennifer Laura Thompson, John Dossett, Kristolyn Lloyd, Becca Ayers, Gerard Canonico, Asa Somers and Remy Zaken. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.