The exquisite new musical Dear Evan Hansen opened Sunday on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, following runs at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. and, last spring, at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre. In the only cast change from the Second Stage production, Michael Park has returned to the role (played off-Broadway by John Dossett) he created in Washington. Here are updated excerpts from Deadline’s earlier review:
The title character is an outsider so withdrawn and so determined to be invisible he can’t work up the courage to order takeout for fear of having to speak with the delivery person. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who wrote the equally beautiful, oddball musical Dogfight) is packed with engaging tunes and insightful lyrics. The book by Steven Levenson (The Unavoidable Disappearance Of Tom Durnin, The Language Of Trees) portrays teen angst taken beyond the normal boundaries with compelling dignity. The team is similarly smart and attuned to the role of adults in what to outsiders must seem impossible to believe.
Ben Platt, a star of the Pitch Perfect films who also had a much-praised run in The Book Of Mormon, plays the title role in an movingly sensitive, career-making performance. Evan’s life is upended when a boy in his class takes his own life and, in a fateful mix-up, turns the shy boy into a local hero. A therapist has encouraged him to write letters addressed to himself, articulating his daily experiences as well as his hopes and dreams. He’s urged on by his mother, who works too hard and is away too much, trying to pay the bills and fill the void left years ago by an abandoning husband. Evan finally complies with a letter expressing his hopelessness but for the existence of Zoe, his secret crush. “All my hope is pinned on Zoe,” he writes, signing the letter, “Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend, Me.”
Like Evan, Zoe’s brother is an outsider; unlike Evan, Connor’s an angry bully who mockingly signs the cast on Evan’s broken arm and has found the printout of that letter. When the missive — “Dear Evan Hansen,” it begins — is found in Connor’s pocket after his suicide, his parents conclude that their son actually had one true friend and really loved the sister he spent most of his life torturing. Evan beomes swept up in the deception, which grows into a movement memorializing Connor and briefly turning the shy, self-loathing teen into a celebrity. (He even gets the girl.) Evan’s attempts to set the record straight doesn’t stand a chance against the need of the dead boy’s family to believe something good and hopeful about him, and to imbue his death with meaning. More than any other aspect of Dear Evan Hansen, this poignant fact has the ring of truth.
Platt seems more to inhabit Evan than to merely portray him. The halting delivery of soulful lines, the arms that flutter out in birdlike spasms as if grasping for logic or reason and, most of all, with a voice that rises from assured tenor to plaintive falsetto all conspire to bring this character to life. Evan could be cousin to The Glass Menagerie‘s Laura Wingfield.
Director Michael Greif’s resume (Rent, Next To Normal) suggests a special affinity for this delicate balancing act of material, and the show is knowingly cast and staged. There are distinguished, all-in performances from Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s mother; Laura Dreyfus and especially Mike Faist as Zoe and Connor. In comic (but not-too-comic) roles, Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland also are fine.
David Korins (sets), Peter Nigrini (projections) and Japhy Weideman (lighting) have created a spectacularly kinetic visual environment to emulate the expanding preasures on Evan from the outside world and his seduced interior, abetted by Emily Rebholz’s spot-on costumes. Noteworthy as well is the beautifully integrated musical supervision of Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton) with vocal arrangements by Justin Paul and musical direction by Ben Cohn. The score soars, bringing us along with it. Dear Evan Hansen is an intimate show with a gigantic heart.