It sounds simple, but this suggestion is anything but, especially in Dear Evan Hansen, the astonishingly moving new musical at the Music Box Theater on Broadway.
This new and, even more astonishingly, completely original musical that wasn’t based on a book or movie, with a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a book by Steven Levenson, follows the titular character, a painfully shy and anxious teenager who finds himself skyrocketing to popularity and online fame due to a set of unexpected circumstances that force him to examine the motivations for actions as well as his relationship with the truth.
Directed by Michael Greif with palpable sensitivity, Evan is brought to life onstage by Ben Platt, who gives an exhaustingly rich performance as a young man held back by his own fears of social interaction. Lonely both at school and at home, where his mother works long hours as a nurse’s aid and takes night classes to become a paralegal, Evan is often in solitude with nothing but his laptop for company. And he is so afraid of interacting with people that he would rather not eat dinner at all than have to pay a pizza delivery man and wait while he counts out change. He is so isolated, he can’t even bring himself to ask anyone to sign the cast on his broken arm.
Platt embodies Evan fully, with a slight speech impediment and an abundance of nervous physical ticks, twitching his head and hands and slumping his shoulders, unable to make eye contact with the people is forced to speak with. Watching him fumble his way through an attempt at conversation with his crush is palpably uncomfortable.
Resigned to spending his senior year of high school in desolation, despite the efforts of his well-meaning mother and psychiatrist, Evan finds himself the subject of his classmates’ fascination when his unfriendly peer Connor (Mike Faist) swipes the letter Evan’s doctor asked him to write himself from the printer in the computer lab. Connor later kills himself, and, with Evan’s letter on him and his name mockingly scrawled on Evan’s cast, his parents assume it was a suicide note and that Connor had a friend in Evan.
Telling himself he’s only protecting the feelings of a family in pain, Evan manufactures story after story for Connor’s parents, Larry (Michael Park) and Cynthia (Jennifer Laura Thompson), whose pain is portrayed in gripping restraint and realism by the skilled pair of actors. Connor’s sister and Evan’s crush, Zoe, is played by Laura Dreyfuss in a performance of impressive and grounded sincerity. Finding solace in Evan’s stories, the wealthy family welcomes Evan into their home, and Evan and Zoe grow closer, much to Evan’s astonishment.
The moral dilemma Evan is facing is a truly confusing one. Connor’s parents believed him to be angry and friendless, while Evan’s note and subsequent stories, create a myth of sensitivity around a young man who seemed to be anything but. And the myth only grows alongside Evan’s lies.
Watching Platt is truly uncomfortable at times – and that is meant as the highest possible compliment. He even manages to find humor in the painfully awkward moments without marketing on or exploiting Evan’s anxiety.
But Evan’s lies are soon made public, thanks to Alana, a classic overachiever played by Kristolyn Lloyd, who encourages a memorial and a fund to be established in Connor’s name. It’s truly uncomfortable to watch as through the lightening speed of the Internet, the actual person is forgotten and a new personal is created and given his name, effectively communicated to the audience through Peter Nigrini’s projections and Japhy Weideman’s lighting, which depict computer and smartphone screens behind the actors on David Korins’ set.
Alana’s determination, and Evan’s eventual acquiescence, result in him rising to fame as Connor’s only friend and confidante aided by Evan’s only actual friend, Jared (a very skilled and funny Will Roland) and eventually giving a speech in front of the school at Connor’s memorial, paralyzed by fear in front of a crowd, with sweat and tears dripping off his face. His speech quickly goes viral, complete with emotional hashtags, and Connor’s posthumous status continues to escalate. Levinson’s book offers piercing insight into the practice of marketing off of personal tragedies as their own commodities – “This is exactly what people need to see!” Alana tells Evan as Evan attempts to protect Connor’s (fictional) privacy. “The more private they are, the better. They belong to everyone now.”
It’s not a surprise how the story progresses, but the whay in which it is told, with the collective efforts of the cast, especially Evan’s moment of reckoning with Connor’s family, during which Platt almost dissolves into a puddle of liquid agony onstage. I was surprised by the speed at which the story, which progresses with deliberate sensitivity and detail, wraps up at the conclusion, which felt like too neat and tidy of an ending that was lacking in detail.
But any slight criticisms are soon forgotten in the wake the importance of this musical. In an age of increasing social anxiety, cyber bullying and teen suicides and a President Elect who personifies the very problem online attacks, Platt’s incredible performance as Evan will help spread the message that they are not alone.