If you are looking for a new musical that taps into modern society, then you need look no further than Dear Evan Hansen. Full of heart, led by an extraordinary central performance from Ben Platt, and featuring a score of rapturous and rhapsodic joy, this is a wonderful, wonderful piece of theatre. It has grown to fill the space at The Music Box on Broadway – impressively and meticulously – and it is likely that its impression on the history of musical theatre will be just as great, just as astounding, just as ground-breaking as Hamilton. A triumph in every way.
If you are a betting person, then placing bets on Dear Evan Hansen taking a clutch of awards at this year’s Tony Awards should be exciting you. It is likely to be the Hamilton of this season – a popular and critical success, and a surprise one.
When it played off-Broadway last year, a transfer seemed inevitable. Even so, there was the fear/possibility that the show might not work in a big house, that there was something about the non-mainstream venue which helped and supported the show, that the average Broadway punter might not be attracted to this small cast, no kick-line, no jazz hands musical.
After all, it is a musical about the power and evils of social media and the trials and tribulations of an awkward teenager who takes reluctant advantage of the death of a fellow student to gain popularity and get a girlfriend. Was it really likely to have mass appeal to audiences who equated Broadway musicals with green witches, door-bell ringing Mormons, Disney characters, hip-hop founding fathers or sexed up Shakespearean send-ups?
Such fears however are swept away by the sheer power and beauty of Michael Greif’s utterly pitch-perfect Broadway version of Dear Evan Hansen. It is splendid and moving, truthful and hopeful, tragic and humorous – it has the spirit of life about every aspect of the production and there is not a single moment when energy or skill flags. It picks you up, takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotional responses and wraps you snugly in beautifully written melodies and achingly poignant and affecting lyrics, dialogue and narrative.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul provide Dear Evan Hansen with a gorgeous score, one that seeps into your heart and mind easily. Some tunes are irresistible, others seduce you with their beauty of phrase, both in terms of tune and lyrics. Unlike many a musical, there is a seamless simplicity about the junction of Steven Levenson’s book and the Pasek/Paul score: scenes lead effortlessly into songs and songs segue into narrative pulses. The coherence is remarkabl
Greif’s production is bigger and brighter than before, which works especially well given the dimensions of The Music Box. Critically, though, the sense of intimacy is not lost: the performances are pitched perfectly to beguile and intrigue. For the most part, as an audience member, you feel like you are intruding into private grief, so deeply affecting are the performances, the situation.
What permits this rare sense of inclusion is simple : the finest, most acute and brilliantly ensemble cast of any musical on Broadway. No one here – including Ben Platt, whose titular character has the most stage time of anyone in the cast – is giving a “star” turn. Everyone is committed to the single purpose of telling this musical fantasy as truthfully and cogently as possible.
Like all good musicals, Dear Evan Hansen understands the critical importance of heart – and as a wise colleague remarked to me, the cast here, led by Platt, exhibit the biggest heart on Broadway. Of this or many a recent season. Even the members of the cast who play brusque or wounded or desperate characters never lose sight of the need for heart to underpin the many tangles and snares of Evan’s rise and fall.
But Platt is the key. He gives a monumental, towering and intensely detailed performance, every iota of which rings true and real. He should walk away with the Tony Award in 2017.
Evan Hansen is a shy, awkward, depressive nerd, lonely and agoraphobic. Raised by his tireless worker mother, he has not really had a father figure in his life and his inadequacies socially, at least in his eyes, confine him to his own bedroom. He has no real friends at school and loses himself in his thoughts. He has a dream girlfriend but no way of gaining or holding her attention.
His mother tries to cajole him into social activities, pays for therapy which may unlock his shy solitude and checks he takes his medication. She frets, worries and loves, but his course seems set: he is afflicted with nervous tics which undermine his confidence further, make him an easy target for his cold colleagues.
Then a tragedy strikes, and an uncomprehending Evan finds himself telling little white lies to make others feel better in the aftermath. When they feel better, so does he, and as the lies grow bigger and darker, he finds himself trapped on a treadmill that keeps trying to trip him up. For a while, he masters the manoeuvres necessary to keep upright, and he finds himself suddenly loved and admired by the people who never bothered with him before and, most surprisingly, complete strangers.
Social media exerts its own particular vice-like grip upon Evan’s soul. Finally, something breaks within him and he makes everything stop – at a real, terribly painful cost to himself. But, as is always the way, the worst is soon over, and as the production ends there is more than a hope that new growth, new life, new hope will partner Evan into the future.
Not even for a second does Platt drop the ball. He shows Evan’s sharp mind calculating odds and possibilities, darting and ducking from imminent disclosure or uncomfortable truth. His sense of the physicality of the character is perfection: every nerve ending seems exposed, every thwarted hope is viscerally cracked open, every impossible dream starkly credible. He plays the truth of every second with the result that Evan Hansen is one of the most complicated, most flawed, most adorable characters ever seen on a stage anywhere.
Even though you know he cannot, must not, get away with what he has done, it is impossible not to want Evan to escape his inevitable brutal fall. It is equally impossible not to shed a tear (or a bucketful) for his plight. That is a measure of Platt’s thrilling performance: he allows you to know the character so completely, so openly, so intensely, that your only response is love.
He is not just an exceptional actor either; Platt can really sing too. He doesn’t have that typical Broadway twang voice favoured by lacklustre producers – which admittedly can be exciting in the right context but too often is just dull; he has a powerful, plaintiff rock tenor voice, pure, as well as shot through with the many colours of expressive tone. He can make his voice introspective or exuberant, teary or triumphant, shattered or shattering. For Forever, If I Could Tell Her, You Will Be Found and Words Fail are each unique expressions of Evan’s moods and spirit – each time it seems like a piece of Platt’s soul has been expended in making the songs sing. And, boy, does Platt make them sing.
Equally, though, Platt unerringly finds all of the comedy the situation can bear. The trio, Sincerely, Me is character led but extremely funny, Platt getting first rate assistance there from Will Roland’s eccentric Jared and Mike Faist’s ghostly Connor. (Both actors give excellent performances throughout)
One of the most impressive developments in the transition of Dear Evan Hansen from off-Broadway to Broadway is the way in which the comic aspects were refined – unbalancing comedic aspects have been distilled and removed or recrafted. Now the comedy is entirely organic, a true aspect of the narrative, another indication of its depth.
Elsewhere in the production, Greif’s expert direction ensures depth in characterisation from all the principal players. Rachel Bay Jones is in remarkable form as Evan’s mother, Heidi. Utterly believable, warmly and wisely maternal, Bay Jones convinces as Platt’s mother and chief carer, and she brings exactly the right prickly inquisitiveness to the tales Evan tells. When she sings So Big/So Small, the sense of profundity is implacable, intense, heart-breaking. Every detail of Heidi is finely etched by Bay Jones in a performance which harmonises expertly with Platt’s.
Laura Dreyfuss (as Evan’s dream girlfriend, Zoe), Michael Park (as Larry, the father of Zoe and Connor) and Jennifer Laura Thompson (Zoe and Connor’s mother) are also superb, charting fractious lines from incomprehension, through grief and bewilderment, to realigned harmony, only to lose that harmony unexpectedly. Dreyfuss is delightful as Zoe, the last to truly believe that Evan was her brother’s secret best friend, and it is awful to watch her suffering. Zoe could easily be a cipher, but Dreyfuss makes her shine.
Park and Thompson are very fine indeed as Connor’s distressed and confused parents. It is fascinating to watch their difficult and unharmonious marriage regenerate in the glow of Evan’s handiwork; despite the fact that you know that their happiness can only lead to disaster for Evan, you nevertheless are in their thrall – they make you want them to be happy too, quite an achievement given the investment in Evan.
Kristolyn Lloyd completes the cast, as the perky, endlessly irritating go-getter, Alana, whose role in Evan’s conundrum is significant. She embodies the notion of social media spreading news and upping the ante without compunction. It’s another fine performance.
Every aspect of Greif’s production works. David Brian Brown’s scenic design is exceptional, creating all the various ordinary settings where Evan’s tale unfolds while also giving a real sense of the bushfire-like environment that constitutes the overlapping war zones of social media.
The sense of Evan being overwhelmed by the social media tribal drums is tangible; Peter Nigrini’s projections are stunningly effective.
Japhy Weideman’s superb lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s brilliant sound design augment and enhance every scene.
Ben Cohn’s gifted music direction ensures that the score is given full value and that the vocal lines are always strong and impressively supported.
Dear Evan Hansen is a masterpiece, a truly inspirational musical and a theatrical marvel. Ben Platt gives a performance which will be memorable for all the right reasons for decades to come. The very model of a major modern musical.
Completely different from, but ultimately better than, Hamilton.