Friday, 30 December 2016

DEAR EVAN HANSEN by Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

     This deeply moving, original, intimate musical deserves its success. It's alway refreshing to see a musical that is not based on a movie, but DEAR EVAN HANSEN is one of the few musicals I have seen with a book so strong that it could stand alone as a play. This is not to denigrate in any way the work of songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Their songs do what songs in a good musical should do--deepen the characters and their relationships. They are as heartfelt as Levenson's book. There's not a wasted moment in this show. It's a textbook example of the ideal of the integrated musical we have talked and written about since OKLAHOMA.
     Evan Hansen is a teenager with what is now called social anxiety disorder. He is frightened of contact with his peers but also deeply lonely--in need of that contact. Like many teens (and a lot of their elders), he feels shut off from the "normal" world. The child of a poor single mother, he dreams of being part of a real nuclear family. During the course of the show he gets caught up in a lie that, like many lies, gets bigger. Evan's therapist has told him to write a daily letter to himself. He shows one of those notes to an even more troubled teen, Connor Murphy, who later commits suicide with Evan's note in his pocket. Evan claims to be Connor's best friend (he barely knew him), and a lie becomes a myth and Evan becomes an internet sensation. Connor's family treats him as their surrogate son and Connor's sister and Evan begin a relationship. The lie has liberated Evan but it has also trapped him.
      This is a small show--only eight characters--but that is it's virtue. There's no unnecessary spectacle. Everything is character oriented. It reminded me of another rich intimate musical, NEXT TO NORMAL. The songs grow organically out of dialogue. They always seem in character.
     DEAR EVAN HANSEN is also a vehicle for the extraordinarily talented Ben Platt. Here is one of those ideal marriages of character and performer. Platt so thoroughly embodies his character that I can't imagine anyone else playing it. And what a singer! A rich baritone chest voice and an amazing falsetto. A friend has called Platt "the next Ethel Merman." He is an amazing singer, but the comparison isn't totally apt. Merman couldn't act anything but herself. Platt fully channels Evan Hansen. The supporting cast is Broadway standard--the highest compliment one can give. Everyone is top notch. They all maintain the show's honesty. Michael Greif has staged the musical beautifully. The simple scenery flows on and off as gracefully as the actors move. I love the way Greif uses space. The distance between characters becomes part of the story.
      The audience last night was full of young people. DEAR EVAN HANSEN also speaks to old codgers like me. We've all felt like Evan Hansen at some time in our lives.

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