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Broadway Reviews

Dear Evan Hansen

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 4, 2016

Dear Evan Hansen Book by Steven Levenson. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Music supervision, orchestrations & additional arrangements by Alex Lacamoire. Scenic design by David Korins. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Music Director Ben Cohn. Cast: Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mike Faist, Michael Park, Will Roland, Kristolyn Lloyd.
Theatre: Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Ben Platt
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Anxiety, isolation, and depression, the kinds of feelings that crush inward rather than expand outward, do not naturally sing. But in the musical Dear Evan Hansen, which just opened at the Music Box, Ben Platt makes them as soaring and melodic as he does essential. Although previously best known as a comic supporting player in the Pitch Perfect movies, or as a second-generation Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon in Chicago and Broadway, the performance he's giving in the title role of this otherwise unsteady Steven Levenson-Benj Pasek-Justin Paul tuner ought to establish and cement his reputation as a young dramatic actor of this genre's highest order.

He embodies as fully as is conceivable a high school senior who, through both a chemical imbalance and years of training, has become completely insular. At the mere glimpse of another person, even his ever-working mother Heidi (she takes lots of extra shifts as a hospital aide to pay for her nighttime paralegal education), Evan shrinks backward, and his skin goes so white that he all but disappears entirely. Though he is clearly capable of fashioning coherent thoughts, he cannot express them, instead stumbling over words, second-guessing himself, or muttering them into oblivion. Not only do his clothes irritate him—he's constantly picking at them, trying to pull them away much as he does people—but so does his skin, which he rubs and scratches and would prefer to be able to ignore.

Only when Evan is sequestered in his bedroom, behind his computer, does he gain a recognizable strength, if perhaps too much, as he accelerates through phrases with breakneck speed that suggests the energy he derives from being alone will push him off the nearest cliff. All these problems are only exacerbated when interaction with others is unavoidable; Platt shows us how hard Evan must work to keep at a distance from his closest acquaintances at school, the extra-curricular overachiever Alana and the nerdy but outgoing Jared, lest he implode. And through jumbling, supercharging, and detonating all these characteristics and more, Platt leaves no doubt that Zoe Murphy, that pretty girl from jazz band, is for Evan at once a dream and a nightmare: the thing he longs for but has conditioned himself to know he will never, ever have.

All this, it should be mentioned, is established within the first five minutes. After that, we see where it leads as Zoe's disturbed brother, Connor, kills himself and implicates Evan in a life that did not exist. Connor, you see, stole from Evan a self-actualization letter he wrote to himself at the behest of his therapist, and had it with him when he died, and for reasons of mocking signed his name large enough to fill up the entire cast Evan wears. (He broke his arm falling out of a tree.) When Zoe and her parents Cynthia and Larry, racked with grief, reach out to Evan to understand what he meant to Connor, Evan entangles himself in a new web of deceit that makes his earlier, daily lies about surviving each new sunrise seem tame by comparison.

The Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Yet when Evan is explaining, at elaborate, fabricated length his secret friendship with Connor, in a gorgeous, wrenching song called "For Forever," he transports himself to his alternate reality no less than he does the Murphys. When Platt begins singing he's tentative and wistful, but his voice soon blossoms into a certainty that unlocks the depths of Evan's fantasies about the kind of connection he has long craved. It's thrilling to see that Evan doesn't lose himself in his lie, but rather finds himself, and explains, all without adding a syllable, why Evan is so determined to maintain the fiction once it begins wreaking havoc on his world. He doesn't want Zoe, the Murphys' love, or the public importance he gains from being the last-ditch anchor in Connor's final drift out to sea. He wants to be the man he's always imagined.

Every moment of Platt's performance is this perfectly textured, and paired with his excellent tenor (passing through a filter of reedy angst whether it's agony, levity, or anything in between), it results in a gripping, surprising portrayal that represents what musical-theatre stardom in 2016 should be, but all too seldom is. If I'm not quite prepared to say that Platt is giving the best performance I've ever seen a male actor give in a musical, it's darn close—undoubtedly in the top five. Alas, too much of the rest of Dear Evan Hansen fails to ascend to Platt's exalted level, and for one simple reason: Nothing else is quite as musical as he is.

This is not to slight the other performers; Laura Dreyfuss (Zoe), Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi), Mike Faist (Connor), Michael Park (Larry), Will Roland (Jared), and Kristolyn Lloyd (Alana) are all strong, and Jennifer Laura Thompson, who paints a vibrant picture of grief as Cynthia, is better still. But there's nowhere for them to go. Michael Greif's mechanical production, which thrives on the distraction of David Korins's ultra-busy set and the social-media projections (by Peter Nigrini) splashed over it, has other goals in mind than exploring these eight souls. The rather better costumes and lights are, respectively, by Emily Rebolz and Japhy Weideman, and Danny Mefford's emphatic, pop-staccato choreography and Alex Lacamoire's orchestrations and Ben Cohn's musical direction, both have their moments. But all come across as tangential.

Why? Levenson's book may, in fact, be too good. It guides us nimbly through the plot, but is so astute at defining situations and characters on its own that, with the exception of "For Forever" and the two numbers that straddle it ("Waving Through a Window," in which Evan codifies his status as an eternal outsider, and "Sincerely, Me," for Evan and Jared to propagate Evan's fiction about Connor), the songs intrude rather than integrate. "You Will Be Found" is an appropriately sprawling Act I finale that documents the spread of Evan's biggest lie, but it's labored. Less effortless still are "Requiem," a hollowed-out trio for the Murphys as they struggle to mourn the family member they never knew; "If I Could Tell Her" and "Only Us," Evan and Zoe's duets as they test the boundaries of their growing affection; and "So Big/So Small," as Heidi relates her own emotional emptiness to Evan's, none of which accomplish anything the dialogue surrounding them doesn't do first.

The lowest points are the senseless curtain-raiser ("Anybody Have a Map?", which is about Heidi and Cynthia, for some unfathomable reason), "To Break in a Glove" (a terrible, listless bonding duet for Larry and Evan), and the Act II opener (there isn't one), that all but apologize for the musical form the authors have adopted. The second act is so undernourished in this way that, if not for the narrative-necessary "Words Fail" (Evan's explosive breakdown), it would have no reason to sing at all. Fancy staging can't easily conjure electricity from no component materials, and, compelling though Levenson's writing may be, it cries out for a charge Pasek and Paul simply do not provide.

I had high hopes for Dear Evan Hansen after seeing it at Second Stage this past spring, and I assumed the creative team would use the ensuing months before Broadway to iron out its flaws. The only changes to the material have been superficial, leaving the enterprise, like Connor, a case of promise stunted by the nutrition it didn't receive when it needed it most.

Platt, though, provides all he can and then some, imbuing Evan with a humanity that's terrifying in its rawness. He holds nothing back, revealing as totally the devastation wrought from living in limbo as he does the yearnings that provide the only rational means of escape, even if they remain locked within Evan's head. For nearly two and a half hours, we experience them from the inside out, feeling first just as trapped as he is and then as elated as the potential for breaking free and becoming "normal." There's no such thing, of course—that's the point, and what makes Evan, and Platt's rendering of him, a creation for the ages, even if the musical about him is distressingly content with having no concrete identity of its own.

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