Dear Evan Hansen
Arena Stage opens a musical built for life in the digital age.
The first musical of Arena Stage's 2015-2016 season is refreshing in both message and medium. Dear Evan Hansen is a world premiere with a book by Steven Levenson and music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It deals with age-old issues — the importance of family, friends, and honesty — but it does so in the contemporary context of a digital universe, where online communications, designed to make human connections faster and better, in fact challenge interpersonal connections, making it impossible to tell what is true and what is false.
Levenson, Pasek, and Paul set themselves two high, untraditional bars in Evan Hansen: exploring a community's grief and examining a lonely protagonist who desperately wants to connect with that community. The title character (played by Ben Platt) is a painfully withdrawn seventeen-year-old who has trouble making friends. Even his relationship with his mother, Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones), is distant.
When Evan's therapist suggests he create optimistic letters to himself, Evan writes one implying that he is best friends with a troubled youth, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), signing it "Me." That's super-optimistic to Evan, since for years he has had a crush on Connor's sister, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss). The letter, and additional fake e-mails that follow written by Evan and his friend Jared (Will Roland), become a centrifugal force in the production, briefly giving Evan everything he ever dreamed of. Eventually though, Evan realizes that he can't live with all the lies he has told and realizes he must confess his duplicity and face disappointing the people who have come to trust him.
Michael Greif's direction is clean and spare, letting the complicated story unravel easily. He takes Levenson's distinct characters and makes them shimmer with energy and credibility. Above all, he creates an ensemble show, where the scenes move quickly, where Danny Mefford's choreography sizzles, and Pasek and Paul's score deepens the story through a vibrant, neatly blended mix of rock, pop, blues, and jazz.
Ben Platt is outstanding as Evan, a teen who is more comfortable in his bedroom than he is being with other people. Since the success of the musical depends entirely on whether Evan's solitary nature appears funny or weird, Evan's ability to laugh at himself and make the audience laugh is crucial. Platt is charming as he eternally twists his shirt tails and hangs his head. His singing voice is a strong, pure tenor with a tremendous range.
Jones is excellent as Heidi, a single mother frazzled by having to work day and night. She is particularly good in her final solo, "So Big/So Small." Jennifer Thompson and Michael Park are well-cast as the "perfect" parents who fight all the time and understand nothing of Connor's pain. Dreyfuss is superb as Zoe, a gentle soul who gets Evan. Possessing a clear soprano, she moves easily from whispering to belting. Faist is moving as the miserable, perpetually stoned Connor, and hilarious when he sings and dances with Evan. Roland provides comic relief as the nerd Jared. Alexis Molnar does well as Evan's would-be right-hand assistant.
David Korins' effective set design uses movable set pieces and a grid of horizontal and vertical screens that slide above the stage, displaying familiar images and titles for every imaginable kind of digital communication, from e-mail to Twitter, Facebook to Instagram (projection design by Peter Nigrini).
Although the themes of grief and loneliness are serious, the musical is anything but somber. It addresses challenging facts of life. But from start to finish, when Evan leaves his room and finds an authentic life outside it, Dear Evan Hansen contains far more joy than sadness.