'Dear Evan Hansen' On Broadway
Mike Faist & Ben Platt (Photo by Matthew Murphy from O&M/DKC PR)
Dear Evan Hansen, now playing at the Music Box Theatre, is a new Broadway musical for the digital age, though its plot is driven by an old-fashioned case of mistaken identity.
The title character, Evan Hansen, is a high school senior with serious anxiety issues. He doesn’t communicate with his worried single mother and is an outcast at school. As part of his therapy his psychologist suggests that he write self-affirming emails to himself. In one of them he confesses his unrequited infatuation for a girl named Zoe. Unfortunately, Zoe’s brother Connor, who’s something of a bully, finds a printout of the email and, taunting Evan, takes it with him.
This seems to set up a classic geeks vs. freaks struggle (with Evan as the geek and Connor as the freak) until Connor commits suicide. Connor’s parents find the email and assume that Evan was the only friend that Connor (who’s also an outcast in his own way) had. When invited to their house, Evan tries to tell the truth, but seeing how their apparent friendship comforts the distraught family, he invents elaborate stories of their time together.
Soon the alleged bromance becomes public, and an emotional speech Evan gives at a memorial goes viral. Aided by a do-gooder girl who turns Connor’s case into a cause, and a wisecracking friend who helps concoct a string of fake email correspondence, Evan goes from zero to hero in the eyes of the world. As things spiral out of control, he’s at once buoyed by this newfound acceptance and wracked by guilt over his dishonesty.
You know, of course, that it won’t turn out well in the end. The talented young cast, which includes Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and Mike Faist as Connor, are good singers and believable as high school students. Under the direction of Michael Greif (who’s got experience with rock musicals through Rent and dysfunctional families through Next to Normal) the plot, while a bit of a stretch, remains plausible.
The music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, who also wrote the lyrics for the hit movie musical, La La Land. It’s unlikely you’ll leave the theater humming any songs from the score, but it does a good job of serving the production. The scenic design, by David Korins, uses a lot of projections that feel very up to the moment.
There’s big second act number called “Words Fail,” which is a kind of mea culpa aria by Evan. Sung by Ben Platt, it brings the house down. Platt (no relation to me, alas) first caught my eye a couple of years ago as a replacement star in The Book of Mormon, but here he gives a career-defining performance which should make him a Tony Award favorite. By the end of “Words Fail” he’s crying real tears, and so is most of the audience.
At a time when the concept of “truth” is more and more elusive and the power of “fake news” more frightening, Dear Evan Hansen is certainly relevant, but it’s the emotion at its core – and Ben Platt’s tour de force performance - that really make it worth seeing.