By Kyle Osborne
You could end the California drought with the tears that flow in Dear Evan Hansen, a new musical enjoying a rapturous run at Arena Stage.
And not just sad tears, though there are plenty of those that are earned in the most honest way, but also tears of joy and fear and hope and longing. If you thought there was nothing new under the sun having to do with teenage angst and the crippling fear of a high school Senior who longs to be accepted, validated, then prepare to be blown away by the sheer elegance of this beautiful piece of work. This ain’t no After School Special.
Ben Platt (from the ‘Pitch Perfect’ films) plays the title character. He’s smarter and more sensitive than anyone else in his school, it seems, which can only mean that he’s virtually friendless. A long time latchkey kid who orders take out for dinner every night while his single Mom works hard, Evan is loved, but his life gives new meaning to “home alone.”
His Mom reminds him to do what his therapist recommended—write a letter to himself each day—sort of a daily affirmation. Of course, these letters begin with ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ On this fateful day, Evan’s letter is brutally honest—things are not going to be great. Life does suck.
A stoner-type kid, Connor (Mike Faist) grabs Evan’s letter from his hands at school and stuffs it in his pocket—typical crappy kid behavior. But when that same kid commits suicide and his parents find what they think was a suicide note written to Evan by Connor, well, that’s when things get compellingly complex.
The grieving family, thinking their defiantly uncommunicative son had confided sensitive information to Evan, ask him to explain. Evan, desperately wanting to tell the truth, but feeling even more obliged to help this family heal, lies. He lies. He tells beautiful lies about what great friends he and Connor were, and sings the sweetest song, ‘For Forever’, about how he and Connor climbed a tree to better view the setting sun.
And here I’ll stop with any specific plot details, except to say that the more Evan lies to help Connor’s wounded parents and sister (the striking Zoe Dreyfuss whose gorgeous voice includes shades of Joni Mitchell in the lower registers) the more Evan starts to benefit himself. The truth gets smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror.
Ben Platt better be playing this role on Broadway in the near future, because more of this world needs to bask in the brilliance of his performance. He makes you laugh, he completely breaks your heart, and he makes you wonder if even the most pure of people can be corrupted by the rewards of acceptance. That is some kind of range to witness.
The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and the book by Steven Levenson are, my apologies, pitch perfect. What would one change or tweak in any way from what’s now onstage? Absolutely nothing.
There isn’t a single character who isn’t fully relatable. Rachel Ray Jones, as Evan’s mother, juggles the emotions (guilt, love, weariness) that so many mothers will find painfully authentic. It’s really one of those “where does the actress end and the character begin?” types of performances that the best actors can bring to the stage.
All hyperbole aside, Dear Evan Hansen is the very best of its kind. Both moving and highly entertaining. Those two can co-exist, you know?
Dear Evan Hansen continues at Arena Stage The Mead Center For American Theater through August 23rd. For more information and tickets, please visit: http://www.arenastage.org/