Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Searching for a Connection, One Post at a Time

Review: Dear Evan Hansen

Ben Platt (center) and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen.

The most satisfying aspect of the Broadway transfer of Dear Evan Hansen, the fantastic new musical which premiered Off-Broadway at Second Stage last spring, is seeing just how well the show has expanded to fill its new theatrical home. Very little has changed from its initial incarnation, but the cast and creative team have deepened and sharpened the show's emotional center to create the most satisfying musical of the current Broadway season. In a theatrical landscape bursting with movie adaptations and big-budget musical revivals, the wholly original Hansen is a breath of fresh air, showcasing a contemporary edge that supports rather than fights its universal appeal.

Loosely inspired by real life events at co-composer/lyricist Benj Pasek's high school, the show opens with the perpetually awkward and lonely Evan Hansen starting his senior year with a broken arm and serious social anxiety. Every day Evan writes himself a letter designed to be encouraging, and through a series of mishaps one of these notes ends up in the possession of troubled fellow student Connor Murphy right before Connor takes his own life. With Evan as the last seeming link to their now dead son, Connor's parents and his younger sister (who Evan has long had a crush on) reach out to Evan in an attempt to ease their grief by learning more about the boys' relationship. And when word of this supposed friendship gets out to the school at large, Evan becomes one of the most talked about - and oddly popular - kids at school.

Much has been made of the contemporary trappings of Evan Hansen; social media, emails, and a host of other methods of electronic communication feature prominently in the plot. But what makes the show truly moving is how the composing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul along with bookwriter Steven Levenson so clearly delineate the ways in which these new technologies all exist to fulfill the very basic, primal need of human beings to feel like they belong. At its heart, Evan Hansen is a show about a group of individuals longing for human connection and the lengths they'll go through to get it. The show also offers a compelling, multifaceted look at how different individuals process grief, and the struggles of parenting teenagers in any decade (the show telling opens with a brief song for Evan and Connor's mothers entitled "Anybody Have a Map?").

Pasek and Paul's score effortlessly captures the infinite complexity of these issues, exploring them with intelligence and depth without offering any easy answers. Their soaring melodies and evocative harmonies cut to the very core of these characters, and yet are unabashedly gorgeous in their own right. The duo was Tony-nominated for their Broadway debut on A Christmas Story, but the treasure trove of songs they've written for Evan Hansen far surpasses their work on that charming holiday adaptation. Pasek and Paul assert their mastery of the musical theatre form again and again, be it on Evan's trasnportive "For Forever," the haunting "Requiem" for the Murphy family, or the buoyant and deliciously droll "Sincerely, Me." The pair also wisely knows when to let their songwriting abilities take a backseat to Levenson's excellent scene work, which expertly moves the plot along without making the sacrifices in depth that too many musical bookwriters make in the name of efficiency.

Everything is directed with unerring precision by Michael Greif, the man behind the artistically similar Next to Normal and If/Then. Greif's ability to balance the show's humor and pathos is remarkable, and he knows exactly how long to let a particular moment or scene breathe before seamlessly transitioning to the next story beat. If there is one critique to be had, it's that Greif hasn't quite brought his design team up to his level, particularly the lighting. Japhy Weideman's stylized lighting design helps to emphasize the cold and sometimes isolating nature of internet communication, but his overuse of harsh downlight often leaves actors' faces partially obscured and difficult to read, particularly from the mezzanine.

Yet even when not fully lit, the cast of Evan Hansen is simply sublime from top to bottom. The clear standout is young Ben Platt as the title character, delivering one of the most fascinating and wonderfully textured leading man performances of the season. While Platt's collection of physical tics and awkward mannerisms felt a tad forced Off-Broadway, here they are entirely believable and instantly establish Evan as a lovable loser who can't quite figure out this whole high school thing. Platt's soaring voice is a perfectly matched to a role clearly created around his specific set of talents, and his is the most exciting star turn on Broadway since Cynthia Erivo burst onto the scene in last season's The Color Purple (like Erivo, I expect Platt to do very well come awards season). Platt proves to be an exceedingly accomplished actor for someone so young, effortlessly carrying the evening and making you root for Evan even while cringing at some of the character's more questionable decisions.

Platt is matched scene for scene by the rest of his cast mates, who are universally excellent. Special praise must go to Jennifer Laura Thompson and Rachel Bay Jones as Cynthia Murphy and Heidi Hansen respectively. Both play mothers struggling against obstacles they are woefully unprepared for, and each actress shares their character's vulnerability and strength in equal measure. Your heart will break repeatedly for Thompson as she desperately clings to any scrap of a connection with her departed son Connor, displaying a grief which is heartrendingly real while also allowing us to see the character's lighter side. And Jones is sensational as Evan's mom Heidi, trying her best to raise her son on her own but clearly overwhelmed by her circumstances. Only the most hardened of hearts will remain unmoved by her rendition of "So Big/So Small" near the show's conclusion, a remarkable insightful encapsulation a mother's love and heartache while trying to figure out where their lives go next.

It is rare for a musical to burst onto the scene as fully formed as Dear Evan Hansen, especially one not based on any kind of source material. The contemporary trappings provide a new context for a universal story about longing and acceptance, the struggles we all face in navigating the challenges of day to day life. Superbly written and expertly performed, this is an enthralling musical for the ages, one which deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.


  1. Speaking of Pasek and Paul, have you seen La La Land yet? If so, what do you think of their songs in that movie?