Dear Evan Hansen
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul bring the crushing silence of adolescence to a booming pop-rock score.
Loneliness is not unique to 21st-century adolescence — just ask Hamlet, Shakespeare's poster child for youthful angst. However, teenage solitude these days comes paired with a sensory overload that Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson have theatricalized to near perfection in their new musical Dear Evan Hansen. Like director Michael Greif's past successes in Rent and Next to Normal, Dear Evan Hansen, now running at Second Stage Theatre, takes a heartfelt snapshot of a hard-to-define moment in youth culture and opens the door for up-and-coming theater artists and fanatics to claim it as the story of their generation.
Pasek and Paul (the Tony-nominated songwriting team behind A Christmas Story and Dogfight) pen another successful score of appealing contemporary melodies ready for mainstream crossover, but with pointed lyrics that go beyond the twee sentiments of a top-40 earworm. "Waving Through a Window," in particular, is an anthem-in-the-making for anyone who's ever felt like an outsider. It's the second number of the show but the first large-scale introduction to our title character. Ben Platt, best known as Skylar Astin's nerdy sidekick Benji in the Pitch Perfect films, shows the full span of his talents as Evan Hansen — a role he originated during the show's D.C. world premiere at Arena Stage and performs again here with gut-wrenching abandon.
When we meet Evan, he's a lonely high school senior plagued with severe social anxiety. Platt's rendering suggests he may even be on the autism spectrum (a seemingly unnecessary character choice for the musical's purposes). His feelings of rejection extend specifically to his deadbeat father (whom we never meet); his single mother Heidi (the phenomenal Rachel Bay Jones in another chameleonic performance), who spends all her time either at her nursing job or studying to become a paralegal; and his unrequited affection for a junior named Zoe Murphy (a brooding girl-next-door played with an appealing sweetness by the silken-voiced Laura Dreyfuss). His only confidants are serial acquaintance Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd capturing the frenetic verve of a manic overachiever) and a tech geek by the name of Jared Kleinman (a charismatic and conniving Will Roland), who only befriends Evan upon his parents' request and insists on being called a "family friend" so as not to claim the undesired title of "friend" ("That's like a whole different thing and you know it," he tells Evan).
Peter Nigrini's stunning projections of an overwhelming Twitterverse engulf our socially paralyzed protagonist, who — arm in a cast from a mysterious summer accident — floats on his own private island that is his tiny twin bed (scenic designer David Korins beautifully blends these small anchoring set pieces into an abstract background of panels where the projections live). Evan opens the show from this cocoon, lit by the glow of his laptop as he attempts to write himself a letter. It's an assignment from his therapist, who asks Evan to motivate himself with a note that begins,
"Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why."
Evan doesn't actually believe any amazing days are coming his way, so what he writes instead is a cry for help from a desperate kid who's lost all hope of ever feeling part of the world that swirls around him. To add insult to injury, the note ends up in the hands of Connor Murphy — the school's resident Boo Radley (an aloof yet subtly volatile Mike Faist) and brother to Evan's longtime crush Zoe, who is a primary topic of the revealing letter. Knowing little more about Connor than his propensity for paranoia and fits of rage, the mishap adds another silent threat to Evan's year. This one run-in with Connor, however, ends up bringing Evan everything he desires — largely by way of a lie that initiates his unorthodox relationship with Connor's family. Soon he finds a pair of surrogate parents in Cynthia and Larry Murphy (layered performances from Jennifer Laura Thompson and John Dossett) and even builds a long-desired love connection with Zoe (a far-fetched, though admittedly satisfying turn of events).
It's difficult to explain the logistics of this progression without spoiling too much. And as one of the few original musicals on the New York stage, a surprise plot twist is a rare joy that Dear Evan Hansen can provide. For an untested property, Levenson's book tells a clear and compelling story, with Pasek and Paul's strong musical engine underneath — though the songwriting partners do prefer their meditative eleven-o'clock numbers in favor of plot-driving songs, which accounts for the show's lengthy run time (it currently clocks in around 2:45).
Even so, there are few numbers on the bill you'd agree to trade in. "For Forever," in which Evan essentially builds his own dream world, is one of Platt's most breathtaking solos, while the Act I closer "You Will Be Found" takes everything nauseating about the #blessed culture and weaves it into a truly moving ensemble number. It's given added dramatic punch from lighting designer Japhy Weideman and sound designer Nevin Steinberg, who blends a cacophony of voices to accompany projections of a social media deluge.
Even as the increasingly confident Evan settles into the custom of face-to-face interactions, social media comes to play an increasingly significant role in his teenage existence. And few other pieces of contemporary theater so aptly capture this virtual network's disillusioning insincerity right alongside its enriching authenticity — not to mention the struggle of finding someone to pick up the signal you send into this vast expanse in the first place. Then again, it seems if you scream loud enough, someone is bound to hear your call and come running.