There is so much richness in the new production of Dear Evan Hansen which opened at Arena Stage on July 30 that, like a gourmet meal, it may take a while to digest. The story (book by Steven Leveson), has themes that will hit home with not only parents and adult children, but also with anyone who has ever failed to connect with loved ones. The music (score and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) made me wish they were passing out CDs at the door. And the cast, led by the amazing Ben Platt, exhibited so much energy and emotion on stage that by the time the last light went out, the audience (at least this member) felt as exhausted and drained as the actors.
Michael Greif directed Next to Normal at Arena before that musical opened on Broadway in 2009 and went on to win three Tony Awards as well as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Dear Evan Hansen, which he also directs, may very well follow that route.
During my earlier interview with Rachel Bay Jones, who plays Heidi, Evan’s mother, she provided insight about the musical: “The play is filled with family connections and how we misfire and what that can mean to parents and kids. There are secrets and lies and hope.There are a lot of intense themes, but they are explored in a hopeful, beautiful way. And it’s very funny. I love that.” (Read the interview.)
Parenting is messy business. Seldom, however, has that journey been explored in such a visceral manner. The young people in the musical – Evan (Platt), his friend, Jared Kleinman (Will Roland), fellow student Alana Beck (Alexis Molnar), Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), and his sister, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) – are all high school students, tottering on the brink of adulthood while still trying to survive adolescence. Heidi is a single mom who works as a nurse’s aide while attending classes to better her position. Her hectic schedule leaves little time to spend with her son who suffers from acute anxiety which has affected his ability to make friends. Cynthia Murphy (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and her husband, Larry (Michael Park), are rich and successful. Yet they have been unable to help their son, Connor, who has been in and out of rehab. Zoe, meanwhile, resents that her parents’ focus on Connor means she will always be an afterthought.
Evan has been seeing a therapist who has given the young man an assignment. Each day Evan is supposed to write himself a letter, a pep talk on paper that, hopefully, will get him through the day. It’s that letter that will lead Evan into a deception that takes on a life of its own. After Connor commits suicide, Evan is mistakenly seen as the young man’s only friend. One lie leads to another and Evan, assisted by his only friend, Jared, must go to extreme lengths to keep the fantasy going. The Murphys embrace Evan, his tales about his relationship with Connor giving the grieving family something to hold onto. Evan, too, is reluctant to let go, finding in the Murphys the family he never had, something that proves painful to Heidi when she finally grasps what has been going on.
Despite the dark themes, the musical soars. It’s not for nothing that Pasek and Paul are seen as the voices of a new generation. Their music is beautiful and their lyrics resonate, particularly with young people, those millennials who are still trying to figure out where they belong. On the outside always looking inside. Never being more than I’ve ever been. And this is very much a musical aimed at that younger group, with on stage screens projecting Facebook posts and tweets.
This is a tour de force performance by Platt, on stage virtually the entire time. Platt is the total package as a vocalist and an actor. He has more than proved his vocal abilities in the film Pitch Perfect and he doesn’t disappoint here. He transforms himself during Evan’s journey. In the beginning, we watch him pull into himself as he’s unable to connect with students at school. As he’s accepted by the Murphys, he turns into a confident young man, brave enough to initiate a relationship with Zoe. When things turn sour, he seeks solace in his mother’s arms and once again we see the little boy who still needs her support and affection.
Of course, even one standout performance wouldn’t be enough to recommend the musical. Fortunately the remainder of the cast is excellent. As Zoe, Laura Dreyfuss starts out doubting Evan’s story. But she needs attention as much as Evan and the two gradually come together, their duet “Only Us,” a sweet moment. Luckily Faist doesn’t disappear after Connor’s death, turning up as both an affirmation and rebuke to what Evan is doing. He has terrific stage presence and a strong, appealing voice. As Jared, Roland provides much needed comic relief. Beck’s Alana, another geeky misfit at the school, heads up the Connor project, raising money to restore an apple orchard where Evan claims he and Connor often spent time.
There’s a touching scene with Connor’s dad, Larry, played by Park, teaching Evan how to break in a baseball mitt. Evan was seven when his dad moved to Colorado and eventually started a new family. He never had those baseball moments with his dad and Connor never used the mitt his dad bought him. Once again, missed connections.
The moms – Jennifer Laura Thompson and Rachel Bay Jones – are so well drawn that many in the audience, whether moms, dads, or kids, will recognize and relate to these characters. Thompson’s Cynthia is so eager to take anything positive from Connor’s life that she never questions anything Evan tells the Murphys even when her memories of her son are so different. She’s willing to rewrite history if that means letting her son (and perhaps herself) off the hook.
Rachel Bay Jones, who also played a mother, Catherine, in Broadway’s Pippin, delivers a heartbreaking “So Big/So Small”, explaining to Evan what transpired when his father left. I won’t spoil this one. It’s a pivotal scene, one that, as Rachel said in her interview, leaves us all with hope.
Dear Evan Hansen
1101 Sixth Street, SW