by Margret Echeverria
When my eyes are wet, it’s all I can do to not join the dialogue on the stage and my giggle box has completely turned over, I am having a really really good time. This reviewer is not a huge fan of musicals by any means – too much distraction and not enough story in most cases – but Dear Evan Hansen is a show that holds you tight with its honesty of story that delights you to your very toes.
Every aspect of what you see, hear and feel hums in perfect harmony throughout the piece. The songs, by Benj Passek and Justin Paul, are poetic expressions of real human stuff that dove tail perfectly with the storytelling. Nowhere to be found is that smile-and-move-your-hands song break that must be endured before we get back to the meat of the matter.
The shame of being human is never more tender than when one is in high school. Our hero, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt), is a sweet senior in high school who is socially challenged, prescription medicated, adored by his single mother, Heidi Hanson (Rachel Bay Jones), has a therapist and has a crush on a girl named Zoe Murphy (Laura Dreyfuss). We want Evan to win because he is just totes adorbs as he struggles to express himself, control his outbursts and fulfill expectations to complete the assignment his therapist gave him this week – to write an encouraging letter to himself every day. Platt is perfection as that kid you remember from your high school, whom you likely owe a huge apology, as he chokes on nearly every word before it bursts out of him loaded with the urgency only a teenager can assign to his own expression.
The unrequited Zoe’s family is a mother, Cynthia Murphy (Jennifer Laura Thompson), father, Larry Murphy (Michael Park) and a brother, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist). Connor is also socially challenged and prone to outbursts. But Connor is self-medicated and at war with his parents who are at war with one another. Zoe does her best to avoid the cross-fire.
These mothers have something in common and the song “Anybody Have A Map?” can only bring the damp eyes of recognition to many of us also wishing our special needs kids came with manuals. I’ve met the mothers Cynthia and Heidi are and I’ve put on the masks they do to face the world and hide the complete lack of clue we have about our matriarchal responsibilities.
Connor and Evan have a run-in between classes at school which is verbally hurtful and ends in Connor shoving Evan to the floor. Zoe tries to smooth things over in a scene saturated with teenage angst, misunderstanding and vulnerability, which is, of course, very funny. Dreyfuss is beautiful. Her voice and manner are the romantic poetry you remember from when you idealized young love. You will fall hard for her. Later, when it looks like the boys might mend, Connor finds one of Evan’s letters on a printer in the lab at school. The letter describes Evan’s hope for a future with Zoe. Connor, at first, thinks this is seriously creepy and then with the warp speed of a bored teen looking for a problem, Connor decides this is a ruse by Evan to upset him enough to stimulate another rage episode and make everyone else in school think Connor is crazy. Faist is flawless as he gives us the really hard to love boy teen narcissistic asshole who misdirects his passion against his own best interests. We know this kid, too. He’s the one who didn’t make it.
And this is only the beginning of the misunderstanding of Evan’s letter to himself, which quickly becomes public – nay, let’s modernize that; it goes viral. Writer, Steven Levenson, has given us a story that could be told around a dinner table right now. Social media is cast in the role of Monster Maker.
I cannot bear to give any more away as Dear Evan Hansen, in my opinion, is required viewing, but I do want to shout out a few more nuggets about the production before I leave you with orders to immediately purchase your tickets. Evan’s friend-because-the-family-says-he’s-a friend, Jared Kleinman (Will Roland), is a power house of comic expression charged with extreme mischief. Kleinman wrecked my kidneys with laughter. Connor’s “acquaintance,” Alana Beck (Kristolyn Lloyd), is the poseur girl you knew in school. Lloyd exposes the loneliness of that girl causing you to, of all things, forgive her. The first dancing sequence, choreographed by Danny Mefford. between Jared, Connor and Evan is a total squeal; I wanted to see it again immediately. Thompson brilliantly portrays an irrationally hopeful mother so well that, even though we know she is deceived, we catch ourselves coming along with it. Platt’s performance is beyond sublime – every reviewer will tell you this. But the added bonus is the stunningly beautiful work of Jones. The journey Heidi Hansen takes in this story is the most transformative of all the characters and Jones acts without a filter giving us every ugly and beautiful detail of her character’s growth shamelessly.
The songs and dance in this show move the story forward – thank you, God – rather than stopping the action and causing you to look at your watch. Two hours and twenty-five minutes fly by and this musical poo-pooer wished there had been more. Yes. Really. Also, the scenic design by David Korins and the lighting design by Japhy Weideman work in the most perfect concert of technical genius I have ever seen in any production ever. Director, Michael Greif, pulled together way more than a schmaltzy musical here. Who knew?
Don’t just sit there, get tickets. Get tickets for your whole family and your best buddies. Give a pair of tickets to the person who delivers your mail.
Dear Evan Hansen – book by Steven Levenson; music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul; directed by Michael Greif
WITH: Ben Platt (Evan Hansen), Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi Hansen), Mike Faist (Connor Murphy), Laura Dreyfuss (Zoe Murphy), Kristolyn Lloyd (Alana Beck), Michael Park (Larry Murphy), Will Roland (Jared Kleinman) and Jennifer Laura Thompson (Cynthia Murphy).
Scenic design by David Korins; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting design by Japhy Weideman; sound design by Nevin Steinberg; production stage manager, Judith Schoenfeld; production manager, Juniper Street Productions; Executive Producers, Wendy Orshan and Jeffrey M. Wilson, Music Supervision, orchestrations and additional arrangements by Alex Lacamoire, choreography by Danny Mefford. The Music Box, 239 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200, www.dearevanhansen.com. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.