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Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN, a Breathtakingly Emotional And Daring Original Musical

There have never been two consecutive years when the Pulitzer Prize for Drama has gone to a musical, but after this year's honoring of HAMILTON, the Second Stage opening of the breathtakingly emotional and daring Dear Evan Hansen has seriously upped the odds.

Ben Platt and Rachel Bay Jones
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Playwright Steven Levenson's first book for a musical is an original story mixing realistic humor with a heart-gripping look at adolescent loneliness, socialized grieving and the dangerous power of the Internet, as a teenage outcast suffering from extreme social anxiety tells a seemingly harmless lie that makes all his dreams appear to come true.

A CHRISTMAS STORY may be the best known work from composer/lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, but their new score, hard-driving pop mixed with piercing lyrics, is more in the vein of their outstanding musical drama, DOGFIGHT; one that entertains, but also deeply explores guarded emotions.

Ben Platt, best known for the "Pitch Perfect" movies and for playing Elder Cunningham in both the Chicago and Broadway companies of THE BOOK OF MORMON, gives a breakout performance as the troubled title character; amazingly detailed in physical tics and shakes as well as verbal uneasiness.

Assigned by his therapist to write upbeat letters to himself to improve his confidence, his latest, beginning with "Dear Evan Hansen" and signed "Sincerely, your best and most dearest friend, Me," is an expression of sullen disappointment that, among other things, mentions the girl he likes but is too shy to speak to, Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss).

Zoe's brother Connor (Mike Faist), another fellow with emotional issues, but quite darker and dangerously aggressive, spots a printout of the letter, sees his sister's name, and confronts Evan. Later that day Connor commits suicide with that same letter in his pocket, leading his parents (John Dossett and Jennifer Laura Thompson) to believe that Evan somehow was able to get through to Connor and have the kind of close relationship with their son that they never could attain.

Ben Platt and Company
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The confused Evan doesn't deny their assumption, and starts building on it when he sees what a comfort his made-up stories of his friendship with Connor are to both the adults and to Zoe, who for the first time is paying real attention to him. With the help of two social media-savvy friends (Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland), the concocted story of Evan and Connor inspires a national movement of showing compassion for those who feel alone in the world. The first act ends with an anthem, "You Will Be Found," that teeters between inspirational and satirical.

Meanwhile, Evan's single mom (beautifully played by Rachel Bay Jones) works as a nurse's aid while studying to be a paralegal. Despite her best efforts to be involved with her son's life, she's too busy with school and work to be fully aware of the new situation, nor of the fact that Evan is enjoying being regarded as a replacement son by Zoe's financially well-off parents.

Using scenic designer David Korins' moving panels and Peter Nigrini's projections, director Michael Greif creates a world of sensations flying too quickly for Evan to comfortably deal with, simultaneously displaying the intimacy of the story contrasting with social media's explosive reactions.

While Pasek and Paul's score delves heavily into teen angst, the standout moment - simple but shattering - is a ballad for Evan's mom recalling her feelings when her husband left them, assuring her son that she will always be there for him.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN is a captivating musical drama that leaves you with a bit of optimistic warmth and thrill of having witnessed an exemplary artistic achievement.



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