Dec. 4, 2016
As the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” a lonely teenager who inadvertently becomes a social media sensation and a symbol of the kindness that is often cruelly absent in high school hallways, the marvelous young actor Ben Platt is giving a performance that’s not likely to be bettered on Broadway this season.
What’s more, this gorgeous heartbreaker of a musical, which opened at the Music Box Theater on Sunday, has grown in emotional potency during its journey to the big leagues, after first being produced in Washington and Off Broadway. Rarely – scratch that — never have I heard so many stifled sobs and sniffles in the theater.
For those allergic to synthetic sentiment, rest assured that the show, with a haunting score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the coming movie musical “La La Land,” for which they wrote the lyrics, is already generating Oscar buzz), matched by a book of equal sensitivity by Steven Levenson, doesn’t sledgehammer home its affecting story. On the contrary, the musical finds endless nuances in the relationships among its characters, and makes room for some leavening humor, too. It is also the rare Broadway musical not derived from or inspired by some other source, which is refreshing in itself.
Evan Hansen, at first glance, may appear to be a stock figure: the misfit kid who’s too shy make friends and eats lunch in the cafeteria alone. But Mr. Platt’s remarkable performance instantly scrubs free any trace of the generic.
From left, Ben Platt, Will Roland and Mike Faist in the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Music Box Theater.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
His Evan is a startling jumble of exposed nerve endings. His eyes blink in continual embarrassment at the twisted pretzels of words that tumble from his mouth whenever he has to interact socially, which isn’t often. He quails at the thought of having to make small talk with a pizza delivery guy. Underneath the thick layers of insecurity, however, Mr. Platt transmits the yearning heart and the desperation for affection — or even just attention — that ultimately gets Evan into deep trouble.
The fateful encounter that sets the plot in motion takes place when Evan is in the computer room at school, printing out one of the daily pep-talk letters to himself that his therapist has advised him to write. It’s snatched up by another loner, Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), but one with a mean streak. He snickers, stuffs it in his pocket and then, noticing that no one has signed the cast on Evan’s broken arm, mockingly scrawls his name across it in giant letters.
But we soon learn that Connor’s psychological travails run deeper than Evan’s. Not long after this unpleasant incident, Connor kills himself. And when his family finds Evan’s letter, they naturally assume it was written by Connor to his friend. In their bewilderment and sadness they reach out to him, hoping he can shed some light on why their son had become so remote and unhappy.
Although Evan tries to stutter out the truth, ultimately he cannot bear to tell them the real provenance of the letter, for reasons both compassionate — he can sense how dearly they want to believe Connor was not just the alienated kid he seemed to be — and self-serving. Evan has long had a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss). His growing closeness to Connor’s parents — Larry (Michael Park) and Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson) — naturally draws Zoe nearer to him.