Dear Evan Hansen is a smart, complicated and thoroughly affecting show. And it’s presented by Arena Stage in a smart, complicated and thoroughly captivating world premiere production, featuring a stellar cast led by Ben Platt of Pitch Perfect fame.
The musical, by the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, isn’t an instant smash — you have to get past a slightly disheartening, disturbing, somewhat creepy part. Which just so happens to be all of Act I. We meet Evan Hansen as a painfully shy, insecure, unhappy kid. Before you know it, he’s become confident, agreeable — as well as a habitual liar and an elaborate fabricator, overstating his relationship with classmate and occasional bully Connor Murphy (Mike Faist) after Connor commits suicide. Evan says the two were “secret friends” — though not gay, he stresses — initially to help assuage the Murphy family’s grief over the fact that no one seemed to know their son.
The lie leads to a work of fiction, a series of letters supposedly between the secret friends. Perversely, the more Evan embellishes, the more things improve for him socially — and the same goes for the Murphys, including daughter Zoe (a charming Laura Dreyfuss), who eventually falls for Evan. Soon enough, everyone in school is following Evan’s lead, posting comments to an online tribute to Connor in which they embellish their feelings about the sullen Goth loner. Everyone wants to fit in and feel a part of something, even if it’s all predicated on a lie.
That online tribute is projected onto a transparent scrim on stage by designer Peter Nigrini, who at other times projects images drawn from various social media sites and apps. It’s often difficult to decipher the details or get the full effect of what we’re seeing. It’s an ingenuous addition to David Korins’s already elaborate set: a reflection of today’s exhausting, over-stimulating media culture.
Pasek and Paul incorporate clear influences from the pop music of today, occasionally coloring outside the musical theater lines, though never in a gaudy or jarring manner. The musical ends with a wallop, stacked with the most emotionally stirring numbers, starting with “Words Fail,” a heavy-hearted song that comes after Evan finally confesses to his deceit. Evan’s largely absent mother stirs up new emotions while lifting her son’s spirits — and the audience’s — with “So Big/So Small.” The number is actress Rachel Bay Jones’s one true chance to shine as a singer — and shine she does, making you wish the mother could have been more present throughout.
Platt keeps you sympathetic to his character even when up to his neck in deceit and denial. The actor fully immerses himself in his role and conjures up challenging emotions at will. He may be just 21, but Platt already knows how to be the kind of actor people can’t stop watching.
Dear Evan Hansen runs to Aug. 23 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $40 to $90. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.
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