|Ben Platt (center) and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen|
One of the best musicals of the year is playing just Off-Broadway on West 43rd Street, where Dear Evan Hansen recently opened at the Second Stage Theatre. Featuring a top-notch score by Tony-nominated songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul along with a host of dynamic performances, Evan Hansen is the definition of a contemporary musical, tackling the concerns and issues arising from our increasingly digital society with wit and deep psychological insight.
The story follows the titular Evan Hansen, an awkward, lonely teen starting his senior year of high school with a broken wrist and very few friends. On the first day of school, a series of misunderstandings leads others to assume Evan is friends with another loner, Connor Murphy, a troubled youth who takes his own life just a few days later. With Connor's family turning to Evan for comfort, the misunderstanding steadily grows thanks to the power of social media and Evan's own questionable choices.
At the heart of Steven Levenson's book is a mature, probing look at grief and how tragedies bind us together in the age of social media and viral videos. The show is not about what led Connor to take his own life (an explanation is never provided or even hinted at), but rather about how those left behind process their grief. It also examines the communal aspects of the way we mourn, and asks how much of the professed sadness on social media stems from a desire to belong to some kind of community, even one bound together by tragedy. Levenson's layered writing manages to tackle these issues in a way that feels both specific and universal, all while keeping the show's action rooted in the fully realized characters at the heart of the story.
Augmenting the emotional exploration of the piece immensely is Pasek and Paul's fantastic pop-rock score, a marvel of modern musical theatre songwriting that packs in all the vocal tricks associated with contemporary music (sky high belting, complex riffs, and tight harmonies) without ever feeling flashy or showy. For all of the pair's giddy musical invention, they ensure that every note and syllable furthers the story and characters, with every song serving multiple functions. Evan's soaring "For Forever" paints a beautiful picture of a (fictional) summer day, setting into motion the story's central deception while simultaneously allowing him to express his innermost desires, all carried off using one of the catchiest melodic hooks of the past few seasons. This kind of complex writing makes every musical number a treat, and the lush orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire make the small 8-person band sound just as rich as a pit twice the size.
The cast is first rate, anchored by Ben Platt's searing portrayal of the lonely and lost Evan Hansen. Known primarily for comedic roles in films like Pitch Perfect and musicals like The Book of Mormon, Platt reveals unending wells of deeply felt emotion over the course of the evening. Unafraid of being vulnerable, by the time Platt sings his character's climatic "Words Fail" both he and the audience are reduced to a blubbering mess, the kind of shared catharsis that occurs only when an actor lays their entire soul bare onstage. Yet Platt is also laugh-out-loud funny, mining Levenson's book for all its humor and providing an excellent comedic balance to the show's gut-wrenching pathos. If Platt occasionally overdoes his character's physical tics, the rest of his performance is so compelling you're unlikely to care.
Rachel Bay Jones is fantastic as Evan's mother Heidi, showing us every facet of a single mother struggling "without a roadmap" to be the best parent she can be to her pride and joy. Jones' instantly accessible persona draws you in while her extremely expressive face conveys a wealth of conflicting emotions, all of which finally bubble to the surface during "Good For You." Just a few scenes later, the supremely gifted actress is both heartwarming and quietly devastating during "So Big/So Small," one of the most touching musical moments of the season.
Both Jennifer Laura Thompson and John Dossett are excellent as Connor's parents, offering very different but entirely captivating portrayals of grief. Laura Dreyfuss offers what initially appears to be a generic take on Connor's younger sister, but by the time she gets to her first big solo she reveals a convincingly complex take on someone who both loathes and desperately misses her big brother. And although Mike Faist doesn't get a lot of time onstage as the real Connor Murphy, the character returns multiple times in other people's memories, and Faist's ability to slightly alter his characterization to reflect how each character remembers him is astounding.
Director Michael Greif uses many of the same tricks he employed in past shows like Rent, If/Then, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, the show Dear Evan Hansen is most obviously inspired by. While this can occasionally make his staging feel derivative, there's no denying that those tricks work, and few directors are better at making a mostly bare stage interesting to look at than Greif. He has also guided his actors to career-defining performances, making for one of the tightest onstage ensembles since, well, Next to Normal.
For all its dark overtones, Dear Evan Hansen proves to be an ultimately uplifting and deeply satisfying piece of theatre, Already more accomplished than the majority of big Broadway offerings this season, the show continues the boundary-pushing experimentation of musicals like Fun Home and the megahit Hamilton, both of which originated Off-Broadway before making their much-acclaimed Main Stem bows. Since producers have yet to announce any transfer plans for this more than deserving show, everyone should rush to see this first rate musical drama while they still can.