Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 4, 2016
Dear Evan Hansen Book by Steven Levenson. Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography by Danny Mefford. Music supervision, orchestrations & additional arrangements by Alex Lacamoire. Scenic design by David Korins. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Costume design by Emily Rebholz. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Music Director Ben Cohn. Cast: Ben Platt, Laura Dreyfuss, Rachel Bay Jones, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Mike Faist, Michael Park, Will Roland, Kristolyn Lloyd.
Every moment of Platt's performance is this perfectly textured, and paired with his excellent tenor (passing through a filter of reedy angst whether it's agony, levity, or anything in between), it results in a gripping, surprising portrayal that represents what musical-theatre stardom in 2016 should be, but all too seldom is. If I'm not quite prepared to say that Platt is giving the best performance I've ever seen a male actor give in a musical, it's darn closeundoubtedly in the top five. Alas, too much of the rest of Dear Evan Hansen fails to ascend to Platt's exalted level, and for one simple reason: Nothing else is quite as musical as he is.
This is not to slight the other performers; Laura Dreyfuss (Zoe), Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi), Mike Faist (Connor), Michael Park (Larry), Will Roland (Jared), and Kristolyn Lloyd (Alana) are all strong, and Jennifer Laura Thompson, who paints a vibrant picture of grief as Cynthia, is better still. But there's nowhere for them to go. Michael Greif's mechanical production, which thrives on the distraction of David Korins's ultra-busy set and the social-media projections (by Peter Nigrini) splashed over it, has other goals in mind than exploring these eight souls. The rather better costumes and lights are, respectively, by Emily Rebolz and Japhy Weideman, and Danny Mefford's emphatic, pop-staccato choreography and Alex Lacamoire's orchestrations and Ben Cohn's musical direction, both have their moments. But all come across as tangential.
Why? Levenson's book may, in fact, be too good. It guides us nimbly through the plot, but is so astute at defining situations and characters on its own that, with the exception of "For Forever" and the two numbers that straddle it ("Waving Through a Window," in which Evan codifies his status as an eternal outsider, and "Sincerely, Me," for Evan and Jared to propagate Evan's fiction about Connor), the songs intrude rather than integrate. "You Will Be Found" is an appropriately sprawling Act I finale that documents the spread of Evan's biggest lie, but it's labored. Less effortless still are "Requiem," a hollowed-out trio for the Murphys as they struggle to mourn the family member they never knew; "If I Could Tell Her" and "Only Us," Evan and Zoe's duets as they test the boundaries of their growing affection; and "So Big/So Small," as Heidi relates her own emotional emptiness to Evan's, none of which accomplish anything the dialogue surrounding them doesn't do first.
The lowest points are the senseless curtain-raiser ("Anybody Have a Map?", which is about Heidi and Cynthia, for some unfathomable reason), "To Break in a Glove" (a terrible, listless bonding duet for Larry and Evan), and the Act II opener (there isn't one), that all but apologize for the musical form the authors have adopted. The second act is so undernourished in this way that, if not for the narrative-necessary "Words Fail" (Evan's explosive breakdown), it would have no reason to sing at all. Fancy staging can't easily conjure electricity from no component materials, and, compelling though Levenson's writing may be, it cries out for a charge Pasek and Paul simply do not provide.
I had high hopes for Dear Evan Hansen after seeing it at Second Stage this past spring, and I assumed the creative team would use the ensuing months before Broadway to iron out its flaws. The only changes to the material have been superficial, leaving the enterprise, like Connor, a case of promise stunted by the nutrition it didn't receive when it needed it most.
Platt, though, provides all he can and then some, imbuing Evan with a humanity that's terrifying in its rawness. He holds nothing back, revealing as totally the devastation wrought from living in limbo as he does the yearnings that provide the only rational means of escape, even if they remain locked within Evan's head. For nearly two and a half hours, we experience them from the inside out, feeling first just as trapped as he is and then as elated as the potential for breaking free and becoming "normal." There's no such thing, of coursethat's the point, and what makes Evan, and Platt's rendering of him, a creation for the ages, even if the musical about him is distressingly content with having no concrete identity of its own.