by Brian Scott Lipton
Anyone who has ever felt unloved, rejected, isolated, or gone to high school (have I left anyone out?) will relate to Dear Evan Hansen, the heart-stirring new musical at Second Stage. But it’s not the just the universal subject matter, lovingly explored by Steven Levenson’s mostly well-written book (if occasionally less-than-credible script) and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s equally smart score, that lends the work such pathos; it’s the brave and extraordinarily raw performance by Ben Platt in the title role.
Evan is a painfully shy, anxiety-ridden high school senior, seemingly incapable of making friends, and barely surviving a home life where he feels mostly neglected by his single mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones), who works as a nurse and takes night classes as a paralegal. On the first day of Evan’s senior year, a letter that he’s written to himself (per the advice of his therapist) is stolen by loner druggie Connor Murphy (Mike Feist, imbuing the character with surprising sweetness). When Connor kills himself, his parents (John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson) decide it’s his suicide note. Evan not only goes along with the charade, but extends it to create a fantasy friendship with Connor, a lie that quickly escalates, and which ultimately changes not just Evan’s life, but the world at large, when a speech he makes at school goes viral.
Director Michael Greif, scenic designer David Korins and projection designer Peter Negrini use scrims full of the Internet as the show’s primary visual design, which is quite appropriate to the material, but leaves the stage a tad too bare for the 2 ½-hour running time. And while it’s the sad nature of modern theater that the show has only eight characters, we really need to see more of the high school population on stage, not just hyper-achieving lonely girl Alana (Kristolyn Lloyd), semi-creepy Jared Kleinman (Will Roland), and especially Connor’s sister Zoe (a lovely Laura Dreyfuss, making the most of an underwritten role) – not-so-coincidentally, the object of Ben’s affections – to create a fuller picture of Ben’s daily environment. (Much is also made of the economic disparity between the struggling Hansens and the well-off Murphys, but I wish I knew which family is the exception and which is the rule).
Intriguingly, Pasek and Paul’s lovely score, highlighted by such memorable tunes as “Waving Through A Window,” “For Forever,” and “You Will Be Found,” often feel like additions to what could have been a straight play. As good as their music is, I wish these super-talented young men could have found something more substantial for Thompson (who does a first-rate job acting as Connor and Zoe’s grieving if self-absorbed mother) to sing, or penned something with a little more heft for Dossett’s dad character than “To Break in a Glove.” Thankfully, though, towards the end of Act II, they allow the sublime Jones to let loose with the shattering “So Big/So Small,” in which she plaintively describes her terror at first becoming a single mom and her ongoing struggle to connect with her son.
I won’t give away the ending of the show, but I can tell you this: Dear Evan Hansen will be the beginning of writers creating works for Platt, whose trailblazing performance ranks among this year’s very best.