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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dear Evan Hansen - A Great Musical For Forever

Cast of Dear Evan Hansen, photo @ Matthew Murphy
This year is actually unusual because I now have seen all the three major contenders for the Tony for Best Original Musical -- The Great Comet, Come From Away, and Dear Evan Hansen. I have great respect for the creative teams behind The Great Comet and Come From Away, but if DEH loses the Tony for best musical, it will be a travesty. The other two musicals had their charm, and Come From Away was touching. But Dear Evan Hansen was simply one of the most emotional, genuine, beautiful experiences I've ever had in the theater. 

Those who want flashy music and dancing might not like the deceptively simple score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Steven Levenson that renders DEH more a "musical play" than anything else. There are no big 11 o'clock production numbers in DEH, no huge anthems. All the songs have a sort of almost casual melody, like pop ballads teens might really sing to each other while strumming a guitar. There's no huge above-the-board stars like Bette Midler or Patti Lupone. No, DEH succeeds by telling a difficult story in an honest, beautiful way.

I think everyone knows the basic outline of the story by now -- shy, awkward Evan writes daily letters to himself as part of his therapy treatment. One letter falls into the hands of a troubled classmate Connor (a wonderfully sardonic Mike Faist). Connor kills himself and his family thinks the letter is a suicide note and Evan lets the family think that their troubled, angry son was actually a cherished friend. Evan and his "friendship" with Connor becomes a social media sensation. This is a story that can only end in tears.

Platt and Jones, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The casting was pitch perfect. Ben Platt deserves every accolade he's getting for his heartbreaking portrayal of the lonely, anxious Evan. His unassuming demeanor belied a powerful expressive voice, and by the end of the evening his face was drenched in tears. It would have been easy for him to go for pure sentiment but Platt's portrayal of Evan was complex and multifaceted -- in between the anxious motormouth talking you could sense there was a mean streak and a manipulative side to nerdy Evan, which made his anguish and remorse all the more affecting.

This is an ensemble cast where there were no small roles. Rachel Bay Jones positively glowed with warmth and heart as Evan's struggling single mom. Will Roland provided most of the comic relief as Evan's one "parents' friend" Jared, who nevertheless helps Evan in his deception. I was astonished to find out that Laura Dreyfuss (Zoe, Connor's sister) is 28, as she so perfectly imitated the mannerisms of a sullen, confused teen. Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson were wonderful as Connor's grief-stricken parents. Kristolyn Lloyd is terrifying as Alana, a girl who decides to really capitalize on Connor's death financially. I could go on giving accolades to the cast, but it's not really one person that stands out, it's the chemistry of the entire cast. They have all been together since DEH was an off-Broadway show, and the emotion and feelings they generated was obviously didn't happen overnight.  I would go urge people to see this cast, because the replacements might be fine singers, fine actors, but I doubt they will have the alchemy of this OBC.

Here's one of the most beautiful songs from DEH:


I think anyone who's ever felt lonely, alone, awkward, shy, depressed, can feel the pain of the people in this drama. When Evan sings "Would anyone notice if I disappear?" or "Is anyone waving back at me?" it wasn't a cheap ploy for sympathy. It made people in the audience wince. There's no big uplifting happy ending either. Just life. As the curtain went down I could hear audible sobs from all areas of the auditorium. Dear Evan Hansen touches the heart "for forever."

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