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Dear Evan Hansen

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 1, 2016

Ben Platt with the full company
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The title character of Dear Evan Hansen, the gorgeous, affecting, and wayward new musical that just opened at Second Stage, is caught in a predicament that that would vex someone much older and more experienced than he. When a dark-minded loner named Connor Murphy at the high school where Evan is a senior killed himself, all he left behind was a letter addressed to Evan. Although Evan wrote it as part of a self-actualization exercise from his therapist, he lets Connor's family believe that he and Connor were secret friends, to give them joy when they need it most. But this act spirals out of control when the community rallies to make Connor a cause and stop his pain from afflicting others. So what does Evan do: admit the awful truth or propagate the lie that everyone wants and needs to hear?

Facing a similar, but perhaps more troublesome dilemma, are the show's writers. Steven Levenson has crafted a powerful, astute book that delves deep into the psychologies of loneliness, doubt, and groupthink, and demands we rethink the way we can allow socialized grief to consume our lives. And Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's sensitive and searing pop score is, at its considerable best, superior to anything heard on Broadway this past season, and among the top five for many years before that. Unfortunately, they have not entirely figured out how to get these essential elements to work together.

They have, at the very least, ensured that it's almost impossible not to care about Evan (an unparalleled Ben Platt) and his plight. Every single thing that occurs directly concerns it, and all the characters are tightly within his sphere. His mother, Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones), is an overworked nurse who's studying nights to become a paralegal, and thus never sees her son; he's secretly in love with Connor's sister, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss), who must hold together her parents, Larry and Cynthia (John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson), after her brother's death; and his school friends, Jared and Alana (Will Roland and Kristolyn Lloyd), link up with him for purposes of their own.

This initially complex tangle of interrelationships only gets more complicated and fascinating as the story unfolds, and Evan's spreading and thickening lie accumulates unexpected consequences (Evan grows increasingly close to the Murphys—too much so for his mother's comfort—and he attains Internet celebrity he lacks the maturity to deal with). This was clearly laid out by a serious playwright with a firm grasp on the issues, and Levenson, whose previous plays in New York include The Language of Trees and The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin (both for Roundabout), pulls no punches along the way.

Ben Platt with Rachel Bay Jones
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Nor do Pasek and Paul (Dogfight at Second Stage, the musical version of A Christmas Story, and the TV series Smash), who are two of the finest of our younger generation of songwriters. They pull right from the underlying traumas and conflictions for their compositions, and craft a musical language that sounds like teenage angst feels. And although their sound is unapologetically "today," with Paul's sophisticated arrangements, hard-driving orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Christopher Jahnke, and dynamic musical direction by Ben Cohn, they don't fear timelessness. In particular, three sequential numbers in the first act, "Waving Through a Window" (Evan before the lie), "For Forever" (Evan telling the lie), and "Sincerely, Me" (Evan after the lie), jolt nonstop, alternately thrilling and hilarious in their depiction of how our innate anxieties define who we are.

But the longer things go on, the weaker the bonds become between not merely the script and the songs, but the show and its mission. Levenson extends the hysteria surrounding Evan so quickly and extensively that the exponentially skyrocketing stakes stretch credulity to and eventually past the breaking point. And though Pasek and Paul find the perfect fusion of drama and theatre in that aforementioned section in Act I, afterwards their writing gets rote. Throughout much of the rest of the act, they treat comparatively bland topics (will the introverted Evan tell Zoe how he feels? Gosh, I just can't guess), and in the second act they're flat-out stymied, providing no opening number; a half-hearted reprise several minutes in; "To Break in a Glove," a lackluster attempt to demonstrate how Evan is becoming a surrogate Murphy; and then more offerings that are both emotionally raw and theatrically static.

Act II is a problem in general; because there are no possible surprises in the outcome, everything is just delaying the inevitable. Levenson, Pasek, and Paul's work retains its rigorous professionalism, but loses everything else, and is not electrifying to watch. You care about the characters and their struggles, but you're no longer granted access to their lives through the musical form's unique magic. At various points, Dear Evan Hansen either wants to be a gripping straight play or a full-out pop opera, but never the musical it ostensibly is.

Finding this balance, rather than getting the foundational material correct, is the hardest challenge with any show this ambitious. But by aiming so high, the writers make it that much more difficult for themselves to succeed. And, ultimately, they fall short: Their show makes almost no mistakes but, taken as a whole, integrated piece, gets very little right, from the unsteady opener (which cries out to swap places with the more broadly expository "Waving Through a Window") to the unearned ecstasy of the finale. The good news is, it's fixable; the bad news is that it would require a thorough retooling that the swirling rumors about the production's not-too-distant Broadway future would suggest it's unlikely to receive.

Laura Dreyfuss with Ben Platt
Photo by Matthew Murphy

In the here and now, though, it's received a blazing contemporary staging by Michael Greif, even if there are a few too many echoes to his work on Next to Normal from several years ago, and ebullient, clever choreography from Danny Mefford. David Korins's set attractively blends components representing blue-sky optimism and the drudgery of everyday life, and constantly rearranges them in hurricanes of motion; Japhy Weideman's lights and Peter Nigrini's excellent social-media-skewed projections touch on the same themes. (The costumes, more matter-of-fact, are by Emily Rebholz.) And the acting company is top-notch. Jones, Dossett, and Thompson are superb as the adults, examining many different kinds of agony. Dreyfuss walks a thin, convincing line between rebelliousness and hopelessness as the anguished Zoe; and Roland and Lloyd, if sometimes a hair too broad, provide energetic support in their community-focus roles. And Mike Faist is both unapproachable and irresistible as Connor (who appears mostly in Evan's subconscious).

Platt, however, is incredible, and this performance would make him a star if the Pitch Perfect movies (in which he played the lovable nerd Benji) and the Chicago and Broadway companies of The Book of Mormon hadn't done so first. His singing voice, a piercing, probing tenor, is good enough on its own. But Platt has imbued every note, and every moment onstage, with a shrunken insecurity that reinforces how ill-equipped Evan is for dealing with life, and though the actor is tall and charismatic, Evan looks like a tiny wisp of an ingrown boy who's at risk of vanishing in the sunlight. And Platt has physicalized Evan so concretely that he can speak volumes by turning his head, collapsing his chest, or delivering a single jittery hand gesture (or, occasionally, a flurry of them), while also conveying the terrifying extent to which Evan takes comfort in his discomfort.

Yet during "For Forever," Evan explodes with affection and importance as he describes the last, perfect day he and Connor "spent together." The song itself is remarkable, a flawless mating of youthful ardor and a grown-up's sense of obligation. But Platt takes it to the next level by forcing not just Evan into that impossible, made-up realm, but guiding us into it, too. When he sings "All we see is sky for forever / We let the world pass by for forever / Buddy, you and I for forever this way / This way / All we see is light / 'Cause the sun burns bright / We could be all right for forever this way," you believe it implicitly.

The rest of the show, alas, has little use for such transporting fantasy: It would rather remain anchored completely in reality, regardless of the many sacrifices that state requires. There's nothing wrong with that thinking in terms of narrative, but it's not musical and it's not theatrical. Dear Evan Hansen needs to be more of both if it wants to elevate its message and us beyond the blandness of the everyday torments it documents. When it's true, nothing's truer; and when it's right, nothing's righter. The writers' struggle is to make their show more like Platt: both true and right at the same time. If they succeed, it could easily become just as good as he is—and maybe even better.

Dear Evan Hansen
Through May 22
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: 2econdStageTheatre

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