Imagine the most alone and invisible you ever felt as an awkward teen. Now multiply that pain by a hundred, and you have Ben Platt’s utterly heart-breaking basket of nerves, Evan Hansen — the anxiety-stricken high school senior at the center of Tony-nominated wunderkinds Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s (A Christmas Story, Dogfight) new musical. Directed by Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal) with a book by Steven Levenson (Showtime’s Masters of Sex), the show opens at Off Broadway’s 2econdStage Theatre on Sunday night.
It’s the start of a new school year, and Evan’s therapist has advised him to start writing letters to himself as little pep talks. At the urging of his overworked but loving single mom, Evan obliges — but when Connor (Mike Faist), another outcast, finds one of the letters, he misreads it. Then, after a tragic event occurs, the letter is misconstrued once again, setting in motion a chain of increasingly non-rescindable misunderstandings. When the whirlwind subsides, Evan finds himself at the center of a positive movement at school, and his dream girl — Connor’s sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) — finally within reach. But does the end justify the means? Must you tell the truth if the truth will put happy people face-to-face with their buried pain?
Dear Evan Hansen is a 21st century show, and it’s fascinating to see the way scenic designer David Korins brings the Internet to life onstage. Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter timelines, Gchats, Kickstarters, Word documents, and YouTube videos are projected onto a set of floor-to-ceiling panels, sometimes double-exposed, sometimes in inverted colors — as the actors often speak the words aloud. It makes the Web feel like a tangible thing that’s all around, permeating our world, not necessarily distracting us, but adding layers onto real life.
The set is used to its greatest effect when something is going viral: Recorded voices of Internet commenters chatter at and over each other, videos in triplicate play on loop, and we see the way a string of text or a brief clip can spin out of control and grow into an unrecognizable monster. These types of visuals will surely evolve in the coming years, as with onscreen text messaging on TV, but Dear Evan Hansen’s set is certainly capitalizing on the movement.
While the cast is wonderful (Will Roland as Jared Kleinman, Evan’s sex-obsessed, confident, and dweeby “family friend,” deserves special praise, as does Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s mom Heidi), it’s Platt who really makes the show. Known for playing uber-nerd Benji Applebaum in the Pitch Perfect movies and Elder Cunningham in Broadway’s Book of Mormon, the 22-year-old is no stranger to taking on the role of loveable outsider with a voice of gold. His nervous stutters and stumbling monologues are wrenchingly real, and he brings the sleepier songs, most of which harken to mid-aughts acoustic pop, to life. Often his guttural sobs make you want to jump onstage and squeeze him until he feels okay again.
Despite the musical’s occasional flaws in pacing — its rather rushed second act could use some retooling and lose an expository song or two — Platt’s performance, and the emotions he draws out of the audience, lingers long after his final bow. B+