If I had a whole Christmas tree full of green lights, I’d be tempted to award them to Ben Platt and Dear Evan Hansen. Hamilton might be much more spectacular, but this intimate musical, based on an original story, is so tightly crafted and brilliantly acted that, from the opening second when the light shines on Evan Hansen in his bed and he begins the mile-a-minute monologue that introduces us to this unique character, we are absolutely hooked.
For those who don’t know —do such people even exist?—Dear Evan Hansen is the story of a very introverted high school senior who, desperate for friendship and love, tells a lie. When the lie mushrooms out of all possible shape and control, Evan is entangled in the mess he has created and must find a way to extricate himself from it.
The lie begins with the suicide of one of Evan’s classmates, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist). Connor is one of those boys whom no one really knows because they are simply too afraid to get to know him. (Evan’s best—and only—friend, Jared, even points out that his grown-out hair at the start of senior year seems like “school shooter hair,” which results only in a staredown from Connor.) Evan (Platt), who is in therapy for his own emotional troubles, could hardly imagine that someone like Connor—rich, good looking, and from a complete family (Evan’s dad left when he was six)—could be troubled, but it is Connor, not Evan, who takes his own life.
The truth is that neither Connor nor Evan is in very good shape, and their parents don’t know what to do to help. The opening song of the musical is sung by their mothers, and Heidi Hansen (Rachel Bay Jones, who, like Platt, won the Tony for her performance) and Cynthia Murphy (Jennifer Laura Thompson) sing,
“Does anybody have a map? Anybody have a map?
Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?
I don’t know if you can tell
But this is me just pretending to know ”
Pretty much all parents in the audience can empathize, and this, from its opening, reveals one of Dear Evan Hansen’s greatest strengths: its characters are every-people; they are us. Nothing that happens here couldn’t happen to anyone watching. We may not all be able to start revolutions like Alexander Hamilton, but we can all fall in unrequited love and we can all fail and we can all lose ourselves in a lie.
Despite Connor’s angry life, his parents are caught off guard by his death. But they are more caught off guard by the “suicide note” they discover in his pocket addressed to “Dear Evan Hansen,” a boy they didn’t even know Connor knew. What the audience knows, of course, is that they actually barely knew each other: the letter was something Evan had written to himself as therapy and Connor had picked up in the computer lab. But, in order to make the Murphys feel better, Evan concocts a tale that he and their son were friends and that the Connor he knew was a much nicer one than the one that the world saw. It’s a chance for Evan finally not to be “on the outside always looking in,” as he plaintively sings in his signature song, “Waving Through a Window.” He can make someone feel better and maybe become a part of something. (And if it just happens that he gets to spend time with Zoe Murphy (a completely winning Laura Dreyfuss), Connor’s sister and the object of his unrequited love, well, he can handle that.) He presses Jared (a hilarious Will Roland) into making a false email trail to create the semblance of a summer friendship, and the lie is on. In a funny and clever song featuring the imagined spirit of Connor (Faist was also a Tony nominee for DEH), the boys explain,
All that it takes is a little re- in- ven- tion!
It’s easy to change if you give it your at- ten- tion!
All you gotta do is just believe you can be who you wanna be
As the “little reinvention” spreads through the school community, people’s retroactive impressions of Connor start to change. And nowhere is that as obvious as in the Murphy household itself. Their immediate reaction to his death (“I will sing no requiem tonight”) is one of anger at a life wasted, but slowly even the Murphys come to believe that there might have been something they missed in Connor that Evan Hansen managed to see. Cynthia and her husband Larry (Michael Park, whose tender duet with Platt, “To Break In A Glove” speaks of the emptiness each character has felt not having a son/father to connect to all these years) even manage to put their crumbling marriage back together. The lie does some good.
And it does some good for Evan as well. Suddenly, instead of a loner, he is popular at school. And Zoe actually likes him.
I don’t need you to sell me on reasons to want you
I don’t need you to search for the proof that I should
You don’t have to convince me
You don’t have to be scared you’re not enough
‘Cause what we’ve got going is good
Ironically, it is when Evan is doing what is arguably his most selfless act—trying to raise money for a memorial for Connor—that the lie begins to unravel. He makes a brilliant speech—
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
—and it ends up going viral, exposing him to levels of scrutiny he could never possibly hope to maintain.
This viral explosion is enhanced by the set design. David Korins has created a series of screens and scrims onto which Peter Nigrini projects endless streams of tweets, posts, pictures, video, and other aspects of the social media that is ubiquitous in Evan’s life and those of his classmates. It is an ingenious design. (They even use it to take the place of those “turn off your cell phone” announcements by simply showing that message over and over on every screen.) When Evan is desperately trying to get someone’s attention in “Waving Through the Window,” it is these computer windows he is wandering through: he can’t even get attention online.
This is a powerful, memorable play, and at its core is the incredible performance by Tony Award-winner Platt. He only has a few more weeks in the part. On Nov. 21 Noah Galvin, who previously starred on the ABC sitcom “The Real O’Neals,” takes over the role. Galvin is expected to play Evan through January, after which Taylor Trensch will take over, following his run in Hello Dolly. And while these actors will undoubtedly bring their own unique elements to the complex role, Platt has simply defined the character. His twitches, his obsessive pulling at his shirt, his vocal shifts, his high-speed nervous speech patterns, a kind of growl that emanates from him when things are really awkward: these make Evan real. If you are wondering whether it is worth the premium being extracted to see Platt before he leaves, the answer is a resounding yes.
Dear Evan Hansen is now playing at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St in New York, in an open run. Ben Platt will leave the cast on Nov 19. Tickets for his remaining performances are sold out but may be purchased through secondary sources. Tickets are available from The Shubert Corporation . Dear Evan Hansen is expected to tour in Chicago in late 2018. Find more information about Chicago plays at theatreinchicago.com.