“Dear Evan Hansen” has changed now that it’s on Broadway, in ways that make it an even more affecting musical. Ben Platt’s performance, impressive from the get-go, is even better. But what’s changed the most is the world outside the theater, turning the story of a lie that gets out of hand into something more realistic and unfortunately more relevant.
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As in the Arena Stage production in 2015 and the Off-Broadway transfer to Second Stage earlier this year, Platt once again portrays Evan Hansen, an anxious high school student. Hansen is so shy that he imagines a conversation with his classmate crush Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) but has never actually talked to her, afraid he would “get sweaty for no reason.” His life is transformed when a classmate he hardly knew, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), commits suicide, and Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia (Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson) assume that Evan and Connor were good friends. They assume this because Evan’s therapist had told Evan to write letters to himself in order to build his self-confidence, and Connor catches Evan printing out one of the letters at a school printer. The letter, which despite its purpose is completely downbeat, includes the desperate line: “All my hope is pinned on Zoe.” Zoe happens to be Connor’s sister, and Connor angrily confiscates the letter. His parents find it in his pocket after he’s killed himself, and think it a suicide letter addressed to Evan.
“We didn’t know that you two were friends,” says Connor’s father. “We didn’t think that Connor had any friends.” He didn’t, but Evan, at first intending to tell the truth, lies when he sees how much it means to Connor’s parents. The lie takes on a life of its own, amplified by social media.
The plot’s trajectory seemed fanciful to me half a year ago, before the subject of “viral fake news” itself went viral. It is also bracing to realize that I omitted an important and relevant matter with which the musical deals. I listed the show’s insights into adolescent insecurity, the struggle of parenting, family dynamics, sibling resentment, the delayed effects of grief, the self-interest of altruism; I pointed out that the show acknowledges even good people see a tragedy through the prism of their own needs.
What I missed is how much Evan and his mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones) are struggling financially, and how resentful Heidi is towards Connor and Zoe’s more affluent parents. Evan, whose father abandoned him when Evan was 7, more or less tries to become part of Larry and Cynthia’s family, resentful of his mother for having to work round the clock at two menial jobs in order to support the two of them. My seeing this class-based resentment adds an extra dimension to the show, in such songs as “To Break in a Glove,” where Larry’s instructions about a baseball glove that Connor never used stands in for the time and effort it takes to nurture a relationship.
The transfer to the Music Box Theater, just a few blocks away from the musical’s Off-Broadway home at Second Stage, feels seamless. The unchanged score holds up, comprised of the same tuneful and moving songs by the young composer/lyricist team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose only previous musical on Broadway was the stage adaptation of A Christmas Story,
Pasek and Paul have done some tinkering with the lyrics, but not in any way that even a devotee would especially notice. The design actually works better on the larger stage, in particular Peter Nigrini’s sensory-overload projections of tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram feeds, but also Nevin Steinberg’s sound design, which includes more than a dozen performers credited for supplying the recorded voices during the social media sequences, such as well-known Broadway veterans Jenn Colella, Stephen Kunken, and Jason Tam.
All but one of the eight cast members on Broadway performed in the original Arena Stage production. (Michael Park, who played Connor’s father at Arena but then was replaced at the Off-Broadway production, has been rehired for Broadway.) All give superb performances. Platt has toned down his nervousness – he fidgets less – which makes his performance all the more credible, all the more heartbreaking. He is so persuasive, indeed, that when he sings such unbearably sad, lonely and lovely songs as “Waving Through A Window” and “Words Fail,” you might momentarily marvel at how he is able to make his face appear as sweaty as Evan Hansen’s would be.
Dear Evan Hansen is on stage at the Music Box (239 W 45th St, between 7th and 8th Avenues, New York, NY 10036)
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